It is a fascinating time to be a member of the Conservative Party. In two months‘ time, approximately 150,000 Tory members will elect a new leader, and by virtue of the British political system, they will also be taking part in the democratic election of a new Prime Minister. This is unprecedented in modern British politics, and with all five candidates formally declared, the race is on to find a new occupant of 10 Downing Street.
The Leave campaign’s shock victory in the referendum on 23rd June seems an eternity away when one considers the pace at which apparent front-runner Boris Johnson’s prospects evaporated. Michael Dobbs – of House of Cards fame – could easily have scripted the events. At nine o’clock on the morning of 30th June, we were set to have both Mr. Johnson and Theresa May (the Home Secretary) set out their stalls. Michael Gove was set to campaign alongside Mr. Johnson, in a re-run of their successful referendum campaign team. The former London mayor already had the backing of prominent Remain campaigners like Elizabeth Truss and Sir Nicholas Soames; he is from the party’s liberal One Nation wing; he is well liked across the country as a whole. Then the knives came out. Michael ‘Brute’ Gove stabbed his referendum ally in the back with a scathing statement announcing his own candidacy. In it, he questioned Mr. Johnson’s true commitment to Brexit, and lambasted his lack of commitment to taking back migration controls from the EU. He also tore into the former London Mayor’s leadership qualities. Mrs. May also joined in. She subtly and effectively took a swipe at the Mr. Johnson’s buffoonery, implying (correctly) that the politics of being Prime Minister is not a joke, and that there are tough times ahead.
Her speech was authoritative, forthright, and incredibly effective. She has been a formidable Home Secretary, taking on the Police Federation and also the European Courts by sending Abu Qatada back to Jordan, and extraditing Abu Hamza to the USA. She is clearly qualified and would make an effective leader and negotiator. She has already proven that she can unify the Party. By pledging to establish a government department to oversee Britain’s ‘divorce’ proceedings from the EU and appointing a Eurosceptic to lead it, she has already set in motion the healing of the internal wounds in Britain’s oldest political party. Some commentators and Tory MPs are aghast that a Remain campaigner, and someone who failed to live up to the pledge to reduce migration to tens of thousands, could even consider standing. Nonetheless, Mrs. May distinguished herself by staying completely under the radar during the campaign, refusing to be drawn into Project Fear, and by denigrating the EU’s woeful migration failures. This meant that, irrespective of the referendum result, she set herself out to be a Conservative politician with a clear task to continue to push for immigration policy reform. This has obviously begun to work, for her candidacy was supported by prominent Brexit supporter Chris Grayling, and she has begun to sweep up support from other Brexit-supporting MPs like Nadhim Zahawi.
This leadership contest is now hers to lose. Distraught Boris supporters are already lampooning Michael Gove as a British Frank Underwood; a Machiavellian traitor who would do all it takes for thirty pieces of silver. He caught David Cameron off-guard by declaring his support for Brexit, and has now completely destroyed Mr. Johnson’s leadership ambitions. He is ruthless, an intellectual, an effective politician, and committed to reform, be it in schools or in prisons. A lifelong Eurosceptic, Mr. Gove’s loathing of the EU has its origins in his father losing his fishing business as a result of the woeful Common Fisheries Policy. His commitment to leaving would make him the perfect candidate to lead Mrs. May’s ‘Brexit Department’. Alas, he has managed to alienate himself as a result of his ‘treachery’. Several Conservative MPs, who would have easily backed him, will never countenance elevating a modern-day Judas Iscariot into Number 10. The old adage that he who wields the sword never wears the crown is turning out to be incredibly insightful once again. Mr. Gove’s election of leader would certainly make bringing the Conservative party together again infinitely more difficult.
Hence, the momentum has shifted towards the relatively unknown Andrea Leadsom, a junior Energy Minister and former banker who distinguished herself during the televised debates. In a lengthy interview in the Sunday Telegraph, Mrs. Leadsom declared herself to be the heir to the Iron Lady, highlighting her Euroscepticism and her Christian faith. Her passion during the referendum campaign has endeared several Conservative Eurosceptics, and will no doubt sweep up most Boris Johnson supporters in the first MP ballot. This is in spite of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show unearthing a 2013 lecture in which Mrs. Leadsom said that leaving the EU would bring dangerous levels of political and economic uncertainty. She said that an EU without Britain would be like eating fish without chips! If only the Remain campaign had done their homework – they could have severely undermined her Eurosceptic credentials. Notwithstanding her subsequent volte face, Mrs. Leadsom’s record in pushing for reform is impressive. She helped to establish the Fresh Start initiative which pushed for a fundamental EU reform, renegotiation and repatriation of powers away from the hands of Brussels bureaucrats. Her ability to attract Brexit-supporting MPs could mean that the final ballot obliges members to choose between two able women who would make great Prime Ministers. Still, the bookmakers are plumping for Mrs. May, but Mrs. Leadsom’s City background would make her the ideal candidate to be the United Kingdom’s first female Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Theresa May ministry.
Dr. Liam Fox is a hearty perennial when it comes to Conservative leadership elections, and his passionate campaigning for Brexit should see him rewarded with a decent Cabinet post but, as today’s first round of elections showed, he is not a serious contender. On the other side of the Conservative Party spectrum, Stephen Crabb is a young Conservative moderniser. The current Work and Pensions Secretary grew up on a Welsh council estate, and has helped the party re-establish itself as a credible political force in Wales. His blue-collar Conservatism is an asset, but he is still a relatively obscure figure outside of Westminster. He is unlikely to make it to the final run-off ballot. His opposition to gay marriage might enthuse the traditionalists within the Tory rank and file, but this is a liability when it comes to winning over undecided voters in a General Election. Still, by teaming up with Sajid Javid, he represents the modern liberal Toryism within the Conservative Party, and could very easily stand again in the future. He will also play a key role in widening Conservative support even further when it comes to elections.
At the time of writing, all signs point to a run-off between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, with the former holding a commanding lead in pledged MP supporters. A coronation, and withdrawal of all her opponents, however, would be unlikely and wrong. The new Prime Minister must ensure that they receive a clear mandate from the Conservative Party membership, to begin the process of ensuring party unity. Labour is tearing itself apart over its useless, ineffective and yet immovable leader, and it is imperative that the new leader helps to heal bitter and painful post-referendum wounds. Some Brexiteers will be distraught at a Remain supporter winning the Leadership, but if Mrs. May wins, she has already signalled a tough negotiating stance vis-à-vis freedom of movement, and will prioritise Britain becoming a global leader once again in free trade. This is exactly the right approach to healing internal party divisions, and this must be done quickly in order to provide the stability this country desperately requires.
Nonetheless, this may be easier said than done. Mr. Gove’s ‘treachery’ is helping to build a narrative that the Conservative Party is in internal chaos, divided and that the damage is irrevocable. This is the last thing that the United Kingdom needs. We need a strong Government to lead us into the Brexit negotiations, and a strong and united governing party is vital.
The new Prime Minister will also have to see off the threat from a rejuvenated Labour Party, if it ever comes to its senses and elects a leader capable of challenging the Conservatives in a General Election. He or she must confront the opportunistic Nicola Sturgeon, who is itching to inflict the headache of a second independence referendum upon plebiscite-weary Scotland, and he or she must provide effective leadership when it comes to Europe. Theresa May, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb have all argued that Brexit means Brexit, and it is now up to one of these five to take the wheel of state from David Cameron and steer the United Kingdom through the stormy seas of leaving the European Union.
The early momentum rests with the Home Secretary who today won the vote resoundingly. Theresa May is qualified, a leader with a proven track record and an experienced politician and negotiator at the European level. She is unafraid of shaking up the party in order to get it elected, as demonstrated by her coining of the ‘nasty party’ label. She is a unifying force, and looks set to bring both party and country together. She is a safe pair of hands, and although she does not exude charisma, she is certainly more than a Blairite robot. Peter Hitchens is incorrect. Mrs. May would never suggest (as the former Labour Prime Minister has repeatedly done ever since the UK voted on 23rd June) that Brexit could be overturned. As the longest serving Home Secretary since R. A. Butler, she is more than ready to make the leap forward into Number 10. It is her leadership contest to lose, and her fellow contenders must put in a Herculean effort to take the crown.