Tonbridge MP’s chances of being PM may be slim at 16-1 odds but military career may attract party right
Tom Tugendhat, the high-profile chair of the foreign affairs committee, once described the job of prime minister as like “winning the lottery”.
With a dearth of options in the cabinet for the party’s centrist wing to rally behind in a future leadership contest, he is the name many more have started to mention should Boris Johnson lose a vote of no confidence.
“Tom would be my first choice,” one former cabinet minister said. “I think a lot of people think he would be the best chance for a fresh start with someone who has a lot of relevant experience and deep thinking.”
On paper, the MP for Tonbridge’s chances of success seem slim – his name comes up often as one of the rank outsiders to succeed Johnson, with odds of about 16-1. But his name is the one that MPs most often bring up of their own accord, once they have finished expressing their varying degrees of doubt about Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss.
Tugendhat is from pure Tory stock, the nephew of the Tory peer Lord Tugendhat and the son of a high court judge. He had a long and distinguished military career, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, working for the FCO in Afghanistan and for the then chief of defence staff Lord David Richards.
During the fall of Kabul, he was furious at the chaos of the evacuation and the approach of world leaders, including Biden, and gave a raw and personal speech in the Commons that was widely praised.
Like the prime minister, his speeches often lapse into multiple languages, in Tugendhat’s case, Arabic, Dari and French. But the pair have a unique loathing for each other, clashing pointedly at select committee hearings and Tugendhat has made little secret of his disdain for the prime minister’s approach.
One senior MP said it would be “a relief, by all accounts, to have someone like that in the job at the moment”. Another minister said they were also hoping for Tugendhat to run – “though he’d need to convince other colleagues he’s got any sort of domestic policy ideas whatsoever. We all know what he thinks about China or Afghanistan.”
One issue is Tugendhat has no ministerial experience, although an ally was quick to note he had “experience running governments, just not this one” – a nod to his time in Afghanistan.
Observant MPs say they have noticed a slew of recent interventions by Tugendhat on wider policy matters – particular in the Mail on Sunday – on the need for nuclear reactors, action to stop the deaths of migrants crossing in small boats and social media regulation.
There are aspects that could still attract some on the party’s right. Tugendhat has been prepared to judiciously vote against stricter Covid measures – an issue likely to be high on the agenda for any leadership race.
He was also a key player in the China Research Group of Tory MPs calling for a more hawkish approach to China, including opposing Huawei’s role in building 5G networks in the UK and lobbying for an amendment to the trade bill as part of recognition of the Uyghur genocide.
He was banned from China as a result, along with fellow MPs Nusrat Ghani, Tim Loughton and Iain Duncan Smith, although when Johnson invited them to the Downing Street rose garden in the aftermath, Tugendhat was not among them.
But Tugendhat has his fair amount of detractors on the party’s right, the chief whip, Mark Spencer, is said to have nicknamed him “Tom Tugendtwat” for his pointed criticism of the government and its actions on the world stage, including rebellions on aid, the trade bill and vehement criticism of the Kabul evacuation operation.
“That kind of saintly disposition is not popular among my lot,” one MP said. “I can’t see him realistically getting past the first round [of leadership voting’].” Another called him “the Rory Stewart of the race”, a reference to the former development secretary’s failed bid in 2019.
One experienced MP said the legacy of Brexit was one that could damage Tugendhat. “There is likely to be significant resistance in [Tugendhat’s] wing of the party if the government goes down the road of triggering article 16. I don’t think we are in that place yet but for sure any block on that would not play well with the membership.”
But he still has some admirers in the cabinet, particularly the levelling-up secretary, Michael Gove, whom he backed for the Conservative leadership in 2017. The pair almost cleared the dancefloor spinning enthusiastically to Whitney Houston at Conservative party conference’s karaoke this year.
Whatever the future of his leadership ambitions, Tugendhat has made it clear he would at least like to be offered the chance at a cabinet role.
“I will serve at whatever level I’m asked to,” he told Politics Home. “Would it be great to be PM? Yep, it would be. Would it be great to be foreign secretary? Fantastic. Would it be great to be defence secretary? Wonderful. Would it be great to be a minister of any kind? Yes, because all of those opportunities to serve are very much winning a lottery.”