The biggest story from Parliament before the summer recess was that Theresa May survived as Prime Minister. However, most agree that Mrs May cannot lead the party into the next election. Conservative MPs can trigger a confidence vote should 15% of them write to the chair of the 1922 committee (the party’s backbench organisation), with May’s fate then decided by the 318 Conservative MPs. If defeated the party would require a new leader, with early rounds of voting taking place among MPs (the lowest ranked candidate in each round being eliminated) before the final two progress to a vote of party members.
It is foolish to predict just who will replace May, but for argument’s sake, I have chosen four leading candidates who represent different strands of thinking within the party.
Current bookmakers favourite is recently departed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. His high profile resignation in protest at the Prime Minister’s proposals for leaving the European Union endeared him further to the heavily Eurosceptic membership of the party, while his two victories in London mayoral elections and prominent role in the leave campaign give him serious credentials as a campaigner. Against him, however, is the difficulty he may find in getting on the ballot paper for the final round, being considerably more popular with grassroots members than MPs. His colourful personal life too does not sit well with a party which ought to stand for traditional family values, while a drawn-out leadership campaign could expose his record of flip-flopping on major issues (his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants, for example, will not chime with the Tory base). Johnson lacks the seriousness and application of a Prime Minister. This may harm him in a leadership race and certainly would in a general election.
Among the leading contenders is Home Secretary Sajid Javid. In his favour is a compelling backstory, the son of a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in Britain with a mere five pounds in his pocket he is firmly in the John Major tradition of Conservatives from humble backgrounds. This is a gift to a party which struggles with seeming out of touch and is also a refreshing antidote to Labour’s fixation with identity politics. Javid would likely be acceptable to the current leadership and perhaps reclaim the ‘One Nation’ mantle May had before the disastrous general election campaign. To win he will have to master his current Home office brief, as rising crime figure dismay party members who yearn to reclaim the mantle of law and order. Nonetheless, he does at present seem to be the greatest threat to the Labour party in a general election, while his recent conversion to the cause of Brexit ought to allow him to draw support from all sections of the party. He’d get my vote and I would consider him at this stage the most likely winner.
Most leadership contests feature a representative of the hard right of the party, a right-wing incarnation of Jeremy Corbyn, and that space looks to be filled by Jacob Rees Mogg. Like Corbyn, he has never held any government office and owes much of his early fame to social media. He is a staunch Brexit supporter who savaged May’s proposals for leaving the EU and aligned with the most right-wing elements of the party. His hard-line Roman Catholicism has led to some difficult questions from the press regarding social issues, but there will always be a constituency in the Tory party for his brand of social conservatism and right-wing economic policy while running to the right of most other candidates gives him a distinct message. However, despite his popularity with the base and personable nature, it is hard to argue he does much for the Conservatives’ electoral prospects given his privileged background and policy positions.
That leaves the party’s Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson. That she is currently ineligible by virtue of not being an MP has not stopped her being talked of as the party’s saviour. Davidson had a strong referendum campaign, one of the few on the ‘remain’ side who can be said to have done so, while she has taken the Scottish Conservatives from near extinction to their best election results in decades. She would doubtless make a fine candidate provided her strong remain support and relatively liberal views do not cause too much alarm for the party membership. Running on the left of the party (almost as an antidote to Rees-Mogg, and to a lesser extent Johnson) may not be hugely popular with the base but her perceived electability is a trump card in a party that values power extremely highly. Given her plan to fight the 2021 Scottish elections and the fact she has a baby due soon it is, however, unlikely she can be a candidate in the near future.
Of those above, Javid seems the best hope at present for a nervous and fractured party that needs to combat Jeremy Corbyn’s growing millennial support whilst maintaining a distinctive Conservative identity.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.