Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of John O’Sullivan, Rachel Wolf, Trevor Phillips, Tim Montgomerie and Marcus Roberts will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the leadership election.
“If they don’t agree with May’s priorities, her successors deserve better than a lame duck PM half-emptying the fiscal cupboard before they even get there.”
Theresa May seems determined to use her last weeks in office to make substantial announcements in the hope that people might think better of her and her premiership. It’s a forlorn hope in my opinion but with this week’s pledge to make Britain the first major nation in the world to commit to zero net carbon emissions Operation Theresa May Wasn’t That Useless is very much underway.
I’m most worried about her plans to announce up to ten billions of pounds of extra public spending for education, mental health and other socially progressive projects. Stiff opposition to these plans from the Chancellor (well done Mr Hammond) has not discouraged her from proceeding with her vanity announcements. Instead, fearing that Cabinet might veto her splurge, she is apparently going to get around that problem by not seeking Cabinet approval.
This presents a final test for those ministers who sit around the top table in government and especially to those who are still in the leadership race. Will they finally stand up to Mrs May? The next leader and his Cabinet (and we know it will now be a “he”) should decide how billions of hard-earned taxpayers’ money should be spent. Even if they agree with May’s spending priorities they should benefit from announcing them. And if they don’t agree with the priorities they deserve better than a lame duck PM half-emptying the fiscal cupboard before they even get there.
There’s also a strong case for the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill to intervene. Sir Mark plans to meet the two final candidates to be the UK’s next PM as soon as they are chosen so that the civil service can prepare to support their draft agendas for government. Both of those conversations should begin with this issue of Mrs May’s misuse of the dying days of her premiership. Both candidates should make it clear that it is not acceptable.
Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome.
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“To survive, pick a candidate for policy, not politics.”
This week’s polling controversy was provided by the ComRes poll and seat projection showing a Boris Johnson-led landslide.
Though flawed the poll nonetheless made an important political point that is at the same time both more obvious and more subtle than it first appears.
On the face of it, it seems almost too obvious to mention that the Conservatives need to win back Brexit Party supporters to stand any hope of winning the next general election.
However, the truth of this is that returning Farage Tories will come not out of a belief in Brexit however rhetorically claimed by a candidate, but rather by the actual delivery of Brexit.
To this end, Conservative MPs and members might be well-advised to take into account who is best placed to navigate difficult parliamentary waters prior to October 31st, the extreme challenge of a crash EU renegotiation and finally, the political and economic fallout of a possible no deal.
In political terms, should the Conservative Party select the ‘feel-good’ most ‘Brexity’ candidate, it will probably not achieve the general election result it desires unless that emotional and rhetorical commitment to Brexit is matched by equivalent legislative, diplomatic, economic and indeed constitutional stewardship and statesmanship.
If the Conservative Party selects a pro-Brexit leader, who fails to deliver Brexit, Brexit Party voters will not return to the Conservative Party regardless of how charming, ardent or sincere in their Brexit belief that leader proves to be. On the other hand, were the Conservative Party to choose a moderate Brexit voice who nonetheless actually delivered Brexit, they would be highly likely to see a major electoral dividend as a result.
All of this is to say, that this contest is a rare incidence of the electoral necessity for a party to pick a genuine governing talent rather than a candidate of seemingly maximum popular appeal. As the case of Prime Minister May proved, it did not matter how many times or how passionately she proclaimed her belief in Brexit, what truly mattered was the diplomatic gravity of the Brussels negotiations and the political gravity of Westminster’s arithmetic.
If Conservative MPs and members truly believe that Johnson is capable of navigating these waters and managing these complex, intersecting crises, then they should select him, see Brexit delivered and win back their Farage Tories. If however, they think another candidate is better-suited to deliver Brexit, they should pick them. Because the Conservative Party’s electoral existence likely hinges upon the actual delivery of Brexit, not a passionate proclamation of its virtues.
“Four conventional challengers now face Boris. All suffer from the same problem: even when we know they differ strongly, as on Brexit, they say almost identical things.”
So the number of candidates has been reduced by three. But has their quality risen as a result? I doubt it.
Both women candidates were voted out. It’s a mark of the power of ideology in the media that there have been so few complaints over their exclusion even in the age of women-only short-lists. Had they been neither Leavers nor socially conservative, their combined total of twenty votes would surely have been seen as shameful Tory misogyny. But their departure was mentioned almost in passing.
Yet judged by ability and achievement, they were stronger than some of those who survived into the final seven. McVey in particular is a feisty performer who saw off Andrew Marr very effectively on his Sunday show simply by knowing more than he did on topics he had chosen. And she is the only candidate who can argue the majority opinion of Tory activists that a No Deal Brexit is the best-available policy rather than just a negotiating tool. That may be needed in the face of EU intransigence.
Her ejection suggests that most Tories don’t yet understand their peril. All over the Western world conservative parties are losing the highly-educated. That loss is unlikely to be reversed, but it can be compensated by winning blue-collar votes culturally and economically. McVey embodies the strategy of winning Northern workers. Whoever wins the race would be well-advised to promote her.
Four conventional challengers now face Boris. All suffer from the same problem: even when we know they differ strongly, as on Brexit, they say almost identical things. An Enigma machine is needed to break the code. That’s hardly conducive to the emergence of a major policy difference that suddenly propels Javid or Raab to the fore.
Jeremy Hunt is modestly ahead already. His shilly-shallying on a no deal did him no harm with MPs. His nearest rival, Michael Gove, has had to battle not only the cocaine story but the fact that it has revived concerns about his knifing Boris last time. All will now depend how much better than everyone else Gove performs in the debates. No pressure but Gove has to triumph.
If he fails, Jeremy Hunt will be the Not-Boris finalist–unless a thunderbolt strikes him from the roving anti-Brexit guerrilla, Rory Stewart, who is dazzling the commentariat as the candidate who speaks the hard truths that Tory voters don’t want to hear.
Stewart sends out tweets on where he’ll turn up next, gets there by Tube or bus, fields questions from startled passers-by, and is blind to the media trailing in his wake. They give him great reviews anyway. Reality intruded when a Daily Telegraph poll showed a Tory Party led by him would receive 19 per cent of the vote and 51 seats (but maybe a landslide in the Press Galley.) It departed when Mr. Stewart hailed his 19 votes as a mandate to convene a rival Parliament across the road if Boris takes Britain out of the EU, ahem, undemocratically.
Theatre of the Absurd won’t threaten either Boris—with his 114 votes—or his last opponent. And if it’s Hunt, whatever he says, he will still be the Remainer candidate soliloquizing to an audience of Leavers.
After three years of delay and obfuscation on Brexit, the play’s no longer the thing
Boris-ites (or should that be Boris-ians or even Boris-istas?) are calling for “vanity” candidates to drop out of the race. I’m not going to add to those calls but I hope all of the candidates might address the issue of the “vanity” prime minister – and with some urgency.
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“True Conservatives need hope, and in this contest, Javid, with his compelling rags-to-riches backstory, is the best answer they have.”
Why can’t Boris Johnson’s opponents see that every time they attack him for being a liar, a clown, a libertine and a layabout, they reveal less about him and more about themselves? The public has long ago decided either that none of these things is true about the Tory front-runner – or that they don’t matter.
He has never claimed to be a saint, and in a world where DNA tests have lately revealed that a significant number of us are not fathered by the person we assumed Johnson’s pecadilloes take him closer to the average family’s experiences, rather than further away.
Even more dismayingly, repeated attempts by his media inquisitors to make an issue of his much-quoted comment about burqa-wearing women – “letterboxes” – whilst having no impact on Johnson’s standing, may be starting to do active harm to British Muslims. The garment is common in the Middle East, but alien to the largely British Muslim population, much it from South Asian or European backgrounds. But it is increasingly being adopted here, often, it is said, at the insistence of men would prefer their wives and daughters to be hidden from public view.
So paradoxically, Johnson’s critics appear to many to be defending this misogynistic “expression of Muslimness” – and creating a completely false impression of Islam as a wholly sexist, oppressive creed.
Which leads me to where we are at the end of Week One. There can be little doubt that the real contest that is taking place is not who will be the next Prime Minister – but who will be his minder? Who can the country trust to keep Boris away from whimsy and misadventure, in much the way that Willie Whitelaw served as an emergency brake on the ideological passions of Margaret Thatcher? She herself asserted that “Every PM needs a Willie” – not a deficit frequently identified with this Johnson – but he could certainly do with a wrangler.
The emerging candidates are Hunt and Javid. The first seems likely to fade next to the blazing sun that is Boris; the latter, if he can make it through to the members’ ballot could be just the ticket, careful, pragmatic, technocratic. More about this next week, but Javid is a critical test for the Conservative Party.
Right now Tories are allowing themselves to be scared off Javid by allegations that he is unpopular amongst minorities. Nonsense. But a 97 per cent white party can’t really be expected to know better. There are two typical responses to ethnic diversity in most organisations – fear and hope. Right now, Tories are acting out of fear of being called Islamophobic. True Conservatives need hope, and in this contest, Javid, with his compelling rags-to-riches backstory, is the best answer they have.
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“These debates are as close as we’re going to get to testing them before they lead us. For all the potential damage, we need it to be a real fight.”
Do MPs want there to be a genuine contest?
Professor Julian Le Grand – professor at LSE – once wrote a book on the “Knights and Knaves” of the public sector. Those who work in the NHS, schools, welfare, are not purely public-spirited altruists. Yes, many of them care about doing the right thing. But they also have personal issues – money and status – that may or may not align with what is right for users and taxpayers.
And so it is with MPs. Who they back is part knight; part knave. The latter part involves calculations like: will I lose my seat at the next general election; and if I back him, will I get a good job?.
Meanwhile members of the party and voters can ask one much simpler question – who will be the best Prime Minister?
We are finally approaching the part of the contest where candidates will be scrutinised, in debate, on this question. The nitty gritty on areas people care about: immigration; fairness; public services (and yes, obviously detail on Brexit) will have to be addressed.
So how much of a contest do MPs want there to be?
Boris, obviously, would like there to be none at all – which is why many say he might lend votes to Hunt. Hunt combines many of the problems other leading candidates have: he is a Remainer; he doesn’t have a strong track record of ideas; he is disliked by many public sector voters. The others each have some, but not all, of these failings.
That might be exactly why MPs choose to push him through. A decisive defeat would minimise the damage to a divided party and public, so they should put through the weakest ‘strong’ candidate.
I hope they don’t though. This is also the best chance we have to see who might fall apart completely once they’re made Prime Minister. We would have noticed a lot about Theresa May – her ability to think and respond flexibly; her communication style; her instincts – if she’d ever had to be in a final two contest. I think that would have saved us a lot of pain down the road.
We might think we know the strengths and failings of Boris; Gove; Hunt; and Javid, but actually we really don’t. Nothing is like being Prime Minister. But these debates are as close as we’re going to get to testing them before they lead us. For all the potential damage, we need it to be a real fight.