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A short time before voting closed in the latest elimination round of the Tory leadership contest, Michael Gove, a Conservative Party heavyweight whom Boris Johnson sacked from cabinet before his own downfall, made the case for Kemi Badenoch. Speaking to the think tank Policy Exchange, he called Badenoch his “intellectual superior,” who had three things the next leader needed: “courage, conviction and clarity.”

Either the bulk of Conservative MPs didn’t see the same qualities in Badenoch or they decided they can get them elsewhere (including with Badenoch in a future cabinet). After Tuesday’s vote, there are three possibilities for Britain’s next prime minister — and Badenoch isn’t one. 

The next bit sounds straightforward. Conservative MPs need to whittle the final list — of Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Penny Mordant — down to two on Wednesday. Then they give the party membership six weeks to put the candidates through their paces and pick the next prime minister. But that last cut is the hardest to make.

The problem is not simply that it’s hard to name a single candidate with the charisma to repeat Johnson’s electoral successes, the gravitas to elevate the party above the enormous damage he did to the Tory brand and the experience to manage the huge problems the country faces from the cost-of-living crisis to the war in Ukraine. The Conservatives are nothing if not realistic. Johnson was unique in many ways, but other leadership candidates bring strengths that couldn’t shine when he hogged all the limelight; and they don’t call it cabinet government for nothing.

The Tories know that perfection doesn’t exist; the problem is they just can’t agree what they’re optimizing for in the next leader.

Is it governing experience? If so, then Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — the big beasts left standing from Boris Johnson’s cabinet — are the best candidates to put to voters. And yet to look at both is to recall their close ties to the Johnson era, even if Sunak resigned his position toward the end.  

If MPs want a choice that also optimizes for charisma and voter appeal, something Johnson had in spades, then it will be hard to leave Liz Truss in the final two, no matter how authoritative she seems. Truss, who still trails Mordaunt in the MP voting, polls extremely well among Tory members, but even she acknowledged not being the slickest of candidates.

Given the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation, you’d think MPs would place a premium on the candidate with the most compelling economic plan. After all, the next leader takes over a medium-sized global power and G7 economy. That’s a high bar for the less experienced Mordaunt, who’s not done much in recent days to dispel the sense that her economic policy views lack much detail. Whether that’s tactical or she just hasn’t had time to think through these things (though she did write a book laying out her governing vision), is not clear.

If Mordaunt has a credibility problem and Truss a relatability problem, then Sunak faces a bigger hurdle in the final run: It’s called the Daily Mail, a tabloid that is gospel for many party members (along with the Daily Telegraph) and that has attacked Sunak’s economic record pretty ferociously.  

Given the string of scandals that brought Johnson down, and the deep loss of public trust, the party may decide it must optimize foremost for character. Sunak and Truss both score highly on personal integrity. Mordaunt wins points as a Royal Navy reservist who worked to support her family as a teenager after her mother’s death from cancer. But loyalty is also a quality Tories want to reward and Sunak’s decision to walk away from Johnson’s cabinet is one he’ll keep having to explain, however grateful the party should be by now.

And you can keep playing this game of what to optimize for. The MP still fighting to get Brexit done by reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol might think its safest with Truss. The MP looking for a candidate able to unite a party that is still very much divided into various tribes would have to give Mordaunt a shot and lose either Truss or Sunak. And all of this is before you factor in the careerism that is never far from consideration (i.e., who is most likely to win and give me a ministerial job?).

Badenoch’s rise and exit at this stage are good signs — she will be vocal in future Tory contests and very likely find a role in government. But her zigzagging statements on the net-zero climate pledge indicates she’s less the conviction-politician than Gove’s salesmanship suggests.

I suspect it would suit Sunak best to match up his wits, experience and command of detail against Mordaunt’s slick but so far somewhat vacuous offering. There’s a chance that with greater scrutiny, Mordaunt’s campaign could falter, leaving Sunak a clear path to No. 10. If she rose to the occasion, voters would get a true choice between two very different political personalities and backgrounds. A Sunak-Truss battle, on the other hand, might leave too much blue blood on the carpet for the Party’s liking by the end. Already, the debates have given the Labour party a pretty impressive free ad. 

What should Tories optimize for? Integrity, competence and a clear governing vision. It seems simple. But one of Johnson’s enduring legacies is he won big by promising something for everyone. The reality check is rough. Decisions, decisions. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

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• Princess Diana Documentary Shows Why the Monarchy Is at Risk: Max Hastings

• At Last, a Road Map for Europe’s Energy Crisis: Maria Tadeo

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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