With the starting-gun fired, as many as 15 potential leadership candidates are under starter’s orders and expected to mount a leadership challenge for Theresa May’s crown, now that her resignation date has been announced for 7th June.
Conservative MPs proudly consider themselves the most sophisticated electorate in the world – combining the cunning of Machiavelli with the hard-headed pragmatism of the most electorally successful political party in Western Europe.
With such a crowded field, set against a turbulent and unpredictable political backdrop, predicting the next Conservative Party Leader at this stage is a fool’s errand.
It is possible, however, to identify five themes in the looming leadership race.
One, of course, is Brexit.
This explains why the likes of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab consistently top surveys of the Conservative rank and file, having initially pinned their leadership ambitions on their opposition to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. It also explains the dramatic about-turn of former Remain-leaning Cabinet Ministers, including Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, who now embrace Brexit and have even championed a so-called “managed” no-deal exit. Burnishing their Brexit credentials will be particularly important for candidates who hope to win over party members, particularly those who defected and supported Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Another familiar refrain in this contest is the need for an experienced head to navigate both party and country through choppy political waters.
As the only leading candidate to have continuously served in Cabinet since the Conservatives were first elected in 2010, Jeremy Hunt will certainly hope that his experience and knack for political survival will resonate with Conservative MPs and members. It was a perceived lack of experience which ultimately sank Andrea Leadsom’s campaign in 2016, and may yet hold back the ambitions of other candidates, including Penny Mordaunt, James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse.
However, it is not unreasonable to consider Cabinet experience to be a barrier, rather than a virtue to a future leadership aspirant.
The Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit, and by extension, her wider Cabinet – has incensed Conservative members and Leave voters across the country. Having baulked at the opportunity to walk from Government and challenge the Prime Minister to chart a different course, a close association with May’s deal may taint the leadership aspirations of Eurosceptics such as Michael Gove, and could leave Brexiteers rallying around a non-Cabinet wildcard contender such as Priti Patel or Esther McVey. On the other wing of the party, Conservative remainers aghast at the self-serving conversion of former Remain Cabinet colleagues may support a left-field candidacy of their own, such as the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart.
The notion of “skipping a generation” is also gaining currency within the Conservative Party.
After close to a decade in power, a major challenge for the Conservative Party at the next election will be the need to address voters’ desire for change. The scale of this challenge has been brought into sharp focus by the publication of a report by Onward, the centre-right think-tank, which found only 17 per cent of Conservative voters are under 45, and only four per cent under the age of 25.
Onward Director, Will Tanner, himself a former adviser to Theresa May, concluded “the only way to regain a majority is to focus on winning over a younger generation of voters. If the Conservatives do not, they risk being pushed to the side-lines, unable to govern.”
No less than seven Conservative candidates vying to succeed Theresa May sought to boost their credentials with young voters by responding to Onward’s findings. As the youngest Cabinet Minister, and the only aspirant under the age of 40, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been touted as the best person to tackle the Conservatives’ “generational challenge”.
It would be remiss not to mention the influence of the potential king-makers in this contest.
Long touted as the standard bearer for the “One Nation” wing of the party, Amber Rudd has begrudgingly accepted that her own personal ambitions are unlikely to ever be fulfilled with an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic party membership, with some reports of an unholy alliance between her and Boris Johnson. Likewise, the former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has thrown his organisational muscle behind Boris Johnson’s campaign, a role which he fulfilled successfully for Theresa May’s 2016 leadership campaign.
With all the focus on the party’s Brexit schism, the resurgence of ‘ideas’ will also decisively shape the tone of any looming leadership contest
Whilst Brexit will loom large in this contest, members will also be looking for a bold vision and policy direction from would be candidates, particularly as the party seeks to salvage its reputation for economic competence and stewardship of public services. However, this resurgence of ideas may further cement the factional splits within the Party between the modernising, socially conservative, and libertarian wings of the party.
With dire poll warnings and a Labour leader seemingly on the cusp of achieving power, the impetus to avoid a damaging political precipice and to seep further support to the Brexit party will likely prompt parliamentarians and members to support the candidate best placed to heal the party’s divisions and confidently take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage. Who that candidate may be is anybody’s guess – but at this stage, it remains Boris Johnson’s to lose.
Tomos Davies, Public Affairs
For more on the Conservative leadership contest read our comprehensive guide to the candidates
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October 15, 2020