Whoever the next Tory leader is, they will not share Theresa May’s deficiencies. Renie Anjeh assesses the runners and riders
A few months ago, Theresa May was queen of all she surveyed. She was high on hubris, drunk with power and worshipped by sycophantic journalists in the right-wing press. No one could have predicted the sharp vicissitudes of fortune which led to this once unassailable prime minister becoming a wounded captain facing mutiny. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
As the prime minister clings on by her fingertips, the talk is of when – not, if – she departs. Conservative members of parliament are openly conspiring against their leader. Some ministers have been ostentatiously jostling for pole position as their leader’s authority breaks down. Some MPs favour a Hard Mayexit where she immediately departs from office while others prefer a Soft Mayexit where she remains prime minister for a while to deliver Brexit and oversee her succession. But she has reached her expiry date and soon Jeremy Corbyn will be jousting with a new face across the despatch box. Now that the Conservative party is preparing to shut down the Maybot, it is time to look at the runners and riders for the Conservative leadership.
As his former rival – and fellow journalist – George Osborne, remarked on The Andrew Marr Show, ‘Boris is in a perpetual leadership campaign.’ He was right. Johnson has always craved the top job and had it not been for his erstwhile ally Michael Gove’s act of betrayal, he would probably be First Lord of the Treasury right now. The current leadership crisis is probably Johnson’s last chance to fulfil the ambitions he has harboured for so long.
Allies still believe that the bumbling, tousle-haired former London mayor is their party’s best bet to defeat Corbyn because of his unique ability to connect with voters. “You need a populist to beat populist,” they say. They also point to his electoral success in a Labour city as proof that he can appeal beyond Tory heartlands. However, others have questioned whether he has the right temperament for the job and his performance as foreign secretary has simply reinforced those concerns. I am not sure whether his scuffles with Ian Lavery and Andrew Gwynne on live television would provide them with any reassurance but that’s by the by.
Critics of Johnson also like to point out that his popularity with urban voters has waned of late because of the EU referendum. The fact he was such a high-profile, indispensable figure in the Leave campaign meant that he toxified his image with the Remain-voting liberals who elected him in London – the kind of voters the Tories must appeal to. It would be deliciously ironic if Johnson’s support for Brexit, which he did to seize the Tory crown, is the very thing that stops his dream from coming true
In 1993, David Davis was one of the government whips who pushed through the Treaty of the European Union through parliament during another Tory civil war on Europe. Spool forward more than two decades, he is the man responsible for extricating this country from the European project during another Tory civil war on, yes, Europe. One would expect a veteran of the Major government to be in their political dotage rather than preparing a campaign for the premiership.
Over the course of his thirty-year career, Davis has been a whip, a junior minister, a select committee chair, a leadership candidate (twice), shadow home secretary, a maverick backbench rebel and now Brexit Secretary. It is that length of service and breadth of experience which leads many Tories to conclude that he is best placed to lead the nation during a time of tumult.
Some would like him to form a pact with the embattled chancellor Phillip Hammond but Davis is the more plausible leadership candidate because Hammond would not command the confidence of Brexiteers. Age is often raised as a case against a Davis leadership however that could also be an advantage for the Brexit secretary. Nobody thinks that Davis would go on forever, to quote an adage ‘young cardinals tend to vote for old Popes’. Anyway, the cult of youth is pretty much over– just ask Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Corbyn or even Vince Cable.
If ever you are asked in a pub quiz ‘who is the fastest-rising minister since the Second World War’, you now know the answer. Amber Rudd has enjoyed a meteoric rise since she entered parliament in 2010 from being Osborne’s parliamentary private secretary to becoming home secretary. Had it not been for the election result, she would already be in Downing Street as the first female chancellor of the exchequer. Instead of being entangled in student politics or the Westminster spadocracy, Rudd had a lengthy career in business, and even a had minor role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which in makes her ascendance even more surprising.
While Rudd has publicly sworn fealty to her boss, her politics is rather different to May’s. She is a liberal ‘one-nation’ Conservative who has argued for a soft Brexit and an enlightened immigration policy in Cabinet. That should not really be a shock to anyone seeing as she was one of the fiercest advocates for Remain, even taking a pop at Johnson’s suitability to be prime minister in the process. Her pitch for the leadership would seek to re-modernise the Conservative party so that it could be a home for urban, liberal and younger voters who they need to win back.
Although she has only been in Parliament for seven years, her popularity with colleagues will count in her favour (after all, she was promoted by May when many fellow friends of Osborne were sacked is something that speaks volumes). Many Brexiteers may be perturbed by having such an unrepentant Europhile as Tory leader but it is said that Gove is a supporter of hers which could help her reach out to the Leave faction. But can you have a prime minister with a majority of 346 votes?
Sajid Javid is another protégé of Osborne from the 2010 intake but unlike Rudd he hails from the libertarian right of the Conservative party. This disciple of Ayn Rand was one of the few cabinet ministers who did not back May for leadership of the party and was consequently demoted to Communities Secretary. As a lifelong Eurosceptic, he earned the chagrin of colleagues by giving very equivocal support for Remain even though he admitted that his heart was with Brexit. Does that remind you anyone? His handling of Port Talbot steel crisis as business secretary was also less than impressive.
However, it would be wrong to write off Javid in any future leadership contest. Javid’s message to his party would be one of returning to small government and free enterprise – a message which would have a lot of purchase with the Tory faithful. His backstory could get him a hearing from an even wider audience. He could present himself ‘British dream’ candidate – the son of poor, Pakistani immigrants from Rochdale who went onto become the youngest ever vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank and then a Cabinet minister. It is that combination of Thatcherite convictions and a powerful life story which could propel this bus driver’s son to Number 10.
If you were to conjure up an image of a Tory rightwinger, you would think of someone who is pale, male and stale. Priti Patel is quite the opposite yet is the undisputed doyenne of the Tory right who is could keep the flame of Thatcherism alive.
The thing that caused Patel to be radicalised by the so-called Tory Taliban was her personal experience of Black Wednesday. The effect it had on her family’s business gave her a strong aversion to all things European so much so that she briefly defected to Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum party in the 1990s. Although she returned to the fray under William Hague, this Tory prodigal daughter remained a virulent Eurosceptic and became one of the most prominent votaries of Brexit during the referendum.
Patel has hardly kept her leadership ambitions secret and it is said that she wished she stood in the last leadership election. It is for that reason that she would expect her to put her rat in the ring next time round. A Patel bid would would focus on traditional Tory subjects – law and order, Europe, immigration, free-market economics – but she could also appeal to ethnic minority voters (which is especially important seeing as many of them share her social conservatism). It would be a huge wakeup call for the Labour party, if the Tories not only delivered the third female prime minister but the first BAME one too.
There are many junior ministers who have been touted as potential leadership candidates; namely Jo Johnson, Rory Stewart and Jesse Norman. But the one that leads the pack is Dominic Raab. He is another leading light of the Tory right who (unlike Patel and Javid) has never reached cabinet rank. That has not stopped from him gaining a strong followership within his party. In his excellent book, All Out War, Tim Shipman recounts how Andrea Leadsom wanted Raab to replace her in last year’s Tory leadership contest. David Cameron is also said to have singled out him out as a possible successor. He is someone who we should all keep a close eye on.
Raab would be a bit like a Tory Corbyn. He would offer ideological ballast to his party and would argue that the Tories have lost their raison d’etre because they abandoned core Thatcherite principles. He would strongly resist any capitulation to Corbynism and would seek to refight the so-called battle of ideas like his heroine did forty years ago. Part of Raab’s radical free-market agenda would be what he describes as ‘capitalism for the little guy’. Just as Corbyn’s state socialism gave benefits to the middle class, Raab’s ‘capitalism for the little guy’ would seek to use the free market to solve social immobility and crack down crony capitalism. He may lack high office but he is a fresh face and a telegenic communicator which would serve him well in the future. However, it is worth bearing in mind that Raab used to be Davis’ chief of staff and therefore it is unlikely that he would stand against his former boss in any future contest.
If you said three years ago that the Tories would have nearly twice as many Scottish MPs as the Labour party, someone would have told you to call FRANK. That is now a reality and it is down to Ruth Davidson. Under her leadership, the Scottish Conservatives have undergone a renaissance after being a moribund force in Scottish politics. Her influence within the Conservatives has grown exponentially over the last six years, that she is now a political cabinet attendee and a member of the Privy Council. It is a truly impressive feat for someone in their thirties who only joined the Tories in 2009.
If this young, working-class, kickboxing Scottish lesbian were to inherit the Tory crown, it would be an incredibly powerful symbol from the party of Old Etonians that introduced Section 28 and opposed devolution. Her authentic, larger-than-life personality has won her admirers from across the political spectrum and could be exactly what her party needs. Davidson has already used her relative autonomy from Westminster to carve out a role for herself as the standard-bearer of centrist Conservatism but has still been loyal to May. That still has not stopped her from striking a very different tone on various issues ranging from Saudi Arabia, Brexit, immigration, grammar schools and welfare. If she were to become leader, we should expect the Tories to shift leftwards on capitalism and social justice while becoming more liberal and internationalist.
However, there are several hurdles to a Davidson leadership. She has said she does not want the job, she is not a government minister and, most obviously, she is not even an MP. But given the mercurial nature of British politics, it would be stupid to exclude any possibility of it happening. If the Conservatives become desperate for a winner in the years ahead, they may conclude that she is the woman to do it and she may find the call hard to resist.
The Labour party should be proud of our better than-expected result. We deprived the Tories of their majority and returned fantastic Labour MPs to parliament. There is a risk in the one-more-heave approach being propagated by some in the party. Watching with schadenfreude while the Tories fail is no strategy for victory. The Tories will contest the next election with a fresh face who is unlikely to have the same deficiencies as the incumbent. That leader is likely to be elected on the back of a proper debate within the Tory party about why they did not win – something which is pretty much absent in Labour. That is why we must start preparing for the next Tory leader otherwise 2017 could be a false dawn.
Renie Anjeh is a member of Progress. He tweets at @renieanjeh
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