Who should succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader? Our panel’s verdict

<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Neal Katyal: Tugendhat can lead us towards more hopeful days

At a time when the world is increasingly unstable and extreme, and where the UK has turned away from the European Union, Britain needs a strong leader who will stand for the values of the west and protect our vital transatlantic partnership. Tom Tugendhat is that leader. I say this as a democrat who served in two different US administrations, ultimately rising to become President Obama’s top courtroom lawyer and President Clinton’s national security adviser at the Justice Department. Tugendhat’s positions are more conservative than mine, but they are rooted in data, facts, moderation, and above all, a deep reverence for the values of democracy.

About 15 years ago, I stumbled into a conference where I got to hear Tugendhat speak. At the time, he was in the British military, serving as a peacekeeper going into Afghani villages. He went in unarmed, with the goal of trying to encourage dialogue, understanding and, ultimately, alliance. We struck up a friendship, and I followed his career as he rose through the senior ranks of the military. I was with him as he campaigned in Tonbridge and Malling to serve as an MP. And I was there on his first election night, as he shed tears, awed by the responsibility his constituents had vested in him. He never shied from his duties as MP, speaking truth to power – in the UK, where he was willing to confront the prime minister’s many lapses despite being a member of his party, and as a leader on the global stage, criticising US actions in Afghanistan when doing so was warranted.

We need that clear voice now. Our two nations face newly resurgent hostile forces from Russia and China. He understands the perils of Europe, and the depth of the unique relationship between our countries.

That relationship is critical not just for foreign affairs, but domestic ones too. Take inflation, which is now roaring. He understands just how to fight it, and knows the key root causes: Russia and China. His understanding of pure domestic policy is deeply sophisticated and nuanced; I have seen him engage the world’s top experts on unemployment, social media policy, artificial intelligence, substance abuse and taxation. He is the rare politician for whom data and truth come first. That is why the Conservative party, which has of late strayed very far from those tenets, needs someone like Tugendhat. He can appeal to people like me, centrists who just want government to work better and don’t need the bizarre sideshows.

Above all, Tugendhat is deeply human, the polar opposite of Boris Johnson. I comforted him when Jo Cox was murdered – I saw the tears first-hand. Despite political differences, that was a real relationship, rooted in mutual respect. At his core, he is about making respect great again – building bridges to others, catalysing the best in us because that is what democracy demands.

Tugendhat is a peacemaker who knows strength, and a spokesperson who knows how eloquence can channel our deepest core values. He is the right person to lead all of us, my country included, toward more hopeful days.

  • Neal Katyal is the Saunders professor of law at Georgetown and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Impeach

Rafael Behr: Sunak is best placed to disappoint the worst of his party

The question of which leader conceals a bigger question: what party? The past three years have been marked by reckless venality and cynical nationalist posturing under a prime minister with no respect for law or institutions. As well as being a recipe for bad government, that is not very conservative in the traditional sense. Boris Johnson’s successor will either continue in that vein or rehabilitate the Tory party that existed before its de facto merger with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in 2019. The choice is between conservatism in the style of David Cameron or Donald Trump.

Which one it is depends on whether the winner owes their victory to support from dogmatic Brexit ultras. That faction’s candidate will always be a hostage, governing in deference to the militant Europhobic tendency that has made a lifelong enemy of economic and strategic reality. Liz Truss has courted that wing. But if the foreign secretary falters, as looks possible, her backers could by default switch to Penny Mordaunt – not because they think she is one of them (she is certainly no natural Faragist) but because the vagueness in her prospectus makes her look malleable, which is to say amenable to capture by backbench fanatics. Mordaunt’s genial manner has a suspiciously “Boris-lite” ring of ethical plasticity.

Her chief recommendation to Brexit fanatics would be as the candidate best placed to stop Rishi Sunak. The former chancellor could not meaningfully be described as left of anything in economic terms, nor even a centrist, except by warped Tory compasses. But he is not a nationalist or an idiot. Already those credentials elevate him above the field. He comes also recommended as the man the Brexit ultras most want to thwart. While hardly the best man for the job, Sunak is at least the one best placed to disappoint the worst of his party.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

Lucy Webster: Penny Mordaunt did OK as disabilities minister

It’s tempting, as someone who longs for a Labour government, to choose the maddest and baddest candidate (a close call between Liz Truss and Suella Braverman), in the hope that the electorate will be forced to plump for the sensible option. But if we have learned anything from the last six years, it is that this strategy is far from guaranteed to be a success and could in fact spell disaster. So, one must hold one’s nose and choose properly.

Naturally, the least worst option, Jeremy Hunt, has already been eliminated by Tory MPs. Kemi Badenoch is too obsessed with the culture wars, and we’ve had enough divisiveness for quite some time. I cannot get behind Rishi Sunak for three reasons. First, I’m not sure he actually has any beliefs of his own, and we’ve just witnessed what happens when there’s a complete lack of principles in No 10. Second, it’s hard to believe that a billionaire is the best person to tackle a cost of living crisis. And third, his habit of talking to the electorate as if we’d all agree with him if only we could understand issues as well as he does is beginning to really grate.

We are left with Penny Mordaunt or Tom Tugendhat. It’s pretty hard to split the difference, isn’t it? They’re both slightly better than the person they would be replacing, which I suppose is something. I’ll go with Mordaunt. She’s got ministerial experience, and it’s always nice to see a woman in power. As disabilities minister – a role I take particular interest in – she was better than any of her successors. So, Mordaunt it is.

  • Lucy Webster is a political journalist, writer and disability advocate

Martha Gill: Tory MPs have it right – Sunak’s the best of the bunch

It is always boring to support a frontrunner, but at present Tory MPs have it right. Rishi Sunak is the best of the bunch.

The Tory party needs a fresh start – that is why this race is happening – but a fresh start should not be confused with a fresh face. Unknown quantities crowd the contest: Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Tom Tugendaht - even Penny Mordaunt is relatively untested. We do not really know who they are, so we cannot know how different their governments would be (or how soon the public might turn against them). Many already have troubling hints of Johnsonism - the record of incompetence in office (Braverman, Liz Truss), the unkeepable promises (almost everyone is pledging vast tax cuts), the desperate leaning on the culture wars (Badenoch, Truss, Braverman). Choosing them would be to put hope over experience, just as the party did in electing Johnson.

We know Sunak. We know he is different to Johnson. Standing by the prime minister’s side as his chancellor – dapper, suave, sober, details-oriented – he always made a startling contrast. True, he is far from perfect. He is at his worst when he tries too hard not to seem like the nerdy swot he is (his campaign video, in which he tried to appear a patriotic man of the people, was dreadful), and his wife’s offshore tax status was a big mistake. Yet he is the only experienced candidate with a record of competence.

He is also the only candidate who is prepared to grasp the reality that it is not the moment for vast crowd-pleasing tax cuts. Economists have warned the scale of the cuts promised by Tory hopefuls would blow a hole in the public finances and risk rampant inflation. The NHS, local government, and the justice system are currently on their knees: we will need more public spending, not less. Inflation is already causing a cost of living crisis. Sunak has promised to balance any future tax cuts with these considerations.

One more thing. Identity politics may be an anathema to the Tory party, but it would be no small thing for the UK to have a minority-ethnic prime minister.

  • Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent

Owen Jones: Each of the candidates has their own lethal qualities

Being asked to choose the least worst Tory to run the country is like being confronted with a smorgasbord of bacterial infections and weighing up the different symptoms and frankly risk of fatality. Am I seeking a candidate whose policies are less harmful, or one who repels voters most and thus secures Tory defeat? It might be tempting to opt for Liz Truss purely on the basis that her eccentric communication skills will doom her premiership I’ve watched her incandescent speech at Tory conference about the scandal of Britain’s importing of cheese maybe a hundred times, sometimes just for a mid-afternoon lift but senior Tories fearing “she might start a nuclear war” is, appropriately, a deterrence.

There’s a problem, too, in defining “Tory moderate”. Was it not David Cameron and George Osborne who imposed crippling austerity on the nation and decimated the welfare state while demonising those who depended on it? Ah, but they were “socially liberal”, we’re told, a reputation resting purely on the introduction of equal marriage, but which airbrushes their scapegoating of migrants, nurtured by Theresa May as home secretary, culminating in the Windrush scandal.

Jeremy Hunt was supposedly such a moderate: tell that to the junior doctors, and look at his nostalgia for austerity or desire to expand the Rwanda scheme. Tom Tugendhat is another: when asked the naughtiest thing he’d ever done, he replied “I invaded a country once”, a contemptuous gag about the murderous criminality of the Iraq war. Penny Mordaunt’s refusal to disown her deceitful claim that Britain could not have vetoed Turkey’s accession to the EU underlines a dishonesty that is integral to modern Toryism. That the Tory Brexiteer Rishi Sunak is portrayed as a “socialist” by his colleagues exposes how extreme the Tory flight to the right has been. As for the other culture warriors standing: it would be like the Spectator’s opinion pages running Britain. And that’s the thing: each has their own particularly lethal qualities, because the peril posed by Toryism isn’t about individuals, it’s institutional. So, with respect to my editors, I’ll leave the choice of severe bacterial infections to somebody else.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist