The outcome of the leadership election will do more than select a new Tory leader, it will give the UK its next prime minister. So far the array of candidates has done little to inspire, says Dr Stephen Barber.
It is astonishing that there are currently considerably more candidates for the Conservative leadership than the party has MEPs. The dismal performance by the Tories at the European Elections was the final nail in the coffin of Theresa May who announced her intention to resign as Prime Minister and party leader before the results were declared. And that has opened the flood gates to those wanting her job.
Any election can attract candidates who know they cannot win. They either want to raise their profile in the hope of getting a better job from whoever becomes leader, stake a claim to the leadership next time or promote a cause they believe to be important.
But the sheer number of candidates – 13 declared at its peak – goes beyond this. We have had Cabinet Ministers (including one only promoted in the last few weeks), former Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State and those who once held a junior ministerial post, and then there are mere backbenchers talking about throwing their hat in the ring.
I cannot think of a single example, certainly not in the last 120 years, of a prime minister being appointed from the backbenches. Remember even Churchill’s return from the wilderness saw him take over as First Lord of the Admiralty before moving to Number 10. But there you have it.
Why are there so many candidates and so many obscure candidates who seem to be lacking the support of even a single parliamentary colleague?
Well, consider that one of the reasons for Theresa May’s survival this long has been the absence of a credible alternative. Despite the vast choice now on offer, that truth remains. For many Conservatives, the frontrunner Boris Johnson has never been a serious candidate for high office, let alone the premiership (‘The idea of Boris as prime minister is ridiculous’ was the Father of the House Ken Clarke’s unguarded comment). But desperate times might well call for a proven campaigner, however much of a buffoon he might seem.
My guess is that there are so many candidates because Tory MPs look around to assess the talent and think ‘blimey, even I’m as good as that’. And so, all sorts of mediocre politicians stake their claim to the top job. After all, they might just get it.
But we have a history to look back on of prime ministers coming to office mid-term. Theresa May became PM because she appeared to be the ‘only grown up in the room’; other candidates dropped out and the membership never got to vote. A decade earlier, Tony Blair’s heir apparent was so obviously Gordon Brown that no-one opposed him. When Margaret Thatcher resigned, the choice was between heavy weights, John Major, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. Going back further, the contest to replace Harold Wilson in 1976 included six candidates in Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland and Jim Callaghan who of course won.
Now I would wager that each of these figures has name recognition more than 40 years on; such big political personalities that were vying for the premiership. In 2062 (assuming they don’t win this summer) do you really think we will be talking about the political significance of Matt Hancock or Mark Harper?
Of course the idiosyncrasies of the Conservative party leadership rules mean a series of elimination votes putting the emphasis on surviving until the last round of voting by MPs. The final two will go through to a vote in the party membership. Tory MPs are a sophisticated electorate and votes will be about who they do not want rather than who they do. The pressure will be on to find an alternative to Boris.
So here is my prediction (subject to change of course), the final two will be Dominic Raab, suitably hard Brexit for the party and Michael Gove, a maneuverer who despite leading the Leave campaign, seems now to be attracting the support of Remainers. We shall see.