The starting gun has been fired for the race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, and Prime Minister. While we don’t know exactly how long the race may be, or even the rules yet, that hasn’t stopped the phone calls and positioning for our countries top job.
The process, at its most basic, is pretty simple. A candidate needs two nominations from Conservative MPs to get onto what we might call a long-list. The MPs then vote in a number of rounds to whittle these down to a short-list of two. These two candidates are then put before the Party membership in a postal ballot.
The biggest risk in this process is that the membership picks someone who they like, but who isn’t liked by enough of the population. There’s a very real chance the Party could pick our very own Corbyn.
The ability to bring the Party together is key. The Conservatives are a broad church, and this needs to be come across strongly from any candidate. Brexit will obviously be a key issue, but something that has been overly simplified in most discussion. There are many Leave Conservative members who will be more than happy to support a principled Remainer. Indeed, we need a leader who can negotiate a deal for the 52% who voted Leave, but also keep the 48% who didn’t as happy as possible. The issue of Scotland must also be a major consideration when choosing the next Leader.
Parliamentary arithmetic is also going to be important. At the next election there are three battlegrounds for the Conservatives: the southern seats to defend against the Liberal Democrats, Labour marginals in London, and Labour marginals in Wales, the Midlands, and the North. With the Lib Dems promising to campaign for our continued EU membership, and tuition fees rapidly becoming political history, a revival in the South West is a real possibility. Seats like Bath, Chippenham, and Twickenham are at risk of changing hands, and Conservative MPs will be looking for leadership candidates who can appeal to these votes and stem the tide.
Map of the UK showing the winning and second Party in each Constituency – from the Telegraph
In Wales, the Midland, and the North, there are now swathes of Britain where UKIP has become the opposition to Labour. The Conservatives now have a unique opportunity to change this, and reclaim many seats they held before 1997, but have been unable to reclaim since. With a leader who can promise to deliver on the result of the referendum, but also offer guarantees on worker’s rights and investment, big gains could be made. But again, it needs a candidate with balance.
Boris Johnson remains the leading candidate with the bookies, now supported by Michael Gove. However, he is hounded by two major issues. As such a high profile member of the Leave campaign, he is associated, more than most, with a campaign that has divided our society, and at times crossed the line in the views of many. This precipitates his second problem: while he may appeal to some non-Conservative Leavers in the country, he offers little for those fighting in Lib Dem marginal in the South. The only way Boris could deliver a majority would be if he could offset losses in the South, with gains against Labour elsewhere in the country. Boris has been an excellent London Mayor, and a key asset for the Conservatives, but many in the Party, and even more in the general public, think giving him the keys to Number 10 is a step too far.
What remains are the Not Boris candidates, that at the moment look like being Theresa May, or Stephen Crabb. The key divider here will be on looking to the next decade of Government. In many ways, the job of modernising the Conservative Party is only half done – there is a strong foundation built by Cameron, but on issues like social mobility, financial inequality, and community cohesion, the Party still hasn’t got where it needs to be. And May is hampered in claiming these areas having been such a large part of the Cameron Government. Amongst younger members of the Party, she has annoyed many with policies such as including international students within the immigration cap, and is often described as ‘authoritarian’.
Stephen Crabb, while already moving to claim the One Nation standard, and supported by popular modernisers like Ruth Davidson, suffers the same issue as May in having supported Remain. While Stephen may be well equipped to preserve gains made against the Lib Dems in 2015, could he make gains elsewhere in the country, or would he even see losses to UKIP with voters fearful Brexit would not be implemented?
Enter Andrea Leadsom and Theresa Villiers. Leadsom is the Minister of State for Energy, and former Economic Secretary. Villiers was a Transport Minister, before serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland since 2012. Both are well respected Members of Parliament, knowledgeable, and likeable in person. Critically, they are both Leave supporters, with the credibility to deliver on the mandate given in the referendum, without having been so close to the flames of the more unsavoury elements of the Leave campaign. Either one may choose to stand themselves, and would stand a good chance. But both of them also have the power to bring the support of Leavers to a leadership candidate who voted Remain. They could provide Eurosceptic support to someone like Stephen Crabb, broadening his appeal and projecting a strong, modern team able to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.
With Boris and Gove now hitching their wagons together, Leadsom and Villiers, alone or together, will likely decide the next Prime Minister. They may choose to run themselves – many Leavers who don’t fancy Boris would welcome – but if they don’t, their support will be vital for offering the broad appeal not only necessary to win the Conservative leadership, but also a General Election. Either way, the choices of Leadsom and Villiers may well decide the next Prime Minister.