Andrea Leadsom has injected life and excitement into this campaign; she won’t survive the calls for a coronation

So, things are a bit clearer now. As things stand, this is now a three-horse race for a two-horse ticket – one will go on Thursday, and then the real Conservative leadership campaign for members’ votes will begin. Much talk in Westminster will focus on how the votes of Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox split between the remaining candidates and, importantly, who will come second.

Theresa May, given her overwhelming parliamentary support, will be on the ticket. So the MPs with the real power over the next 48 hours will be those who won’t vote for her. In making their decision as to who to pick, Andrea Leadsom or Michael Gove, they will need to think very seriously on two factors.

Firstly, which candidate is best placed to take on Theresa May? As I’ve already set out, May, through her steady-as-she-goes approach would not bring the innovative drive to governance required in this time of policy-upheaval. Many MPs will share this view, or have reservations about May based on her record, especially missing the immigration target – a key tenant of the Leave victory according to most referendum post-mortems. Whatever their doubts, they will be united in the ambition to stop her.

Leadsom had a promising start, though the cracks have started to show, raising doubts about her ability to eat into the Home Secretary’s lead. I haven’t mentioned the key criticism of May which either candidate will certainly utilise if they make the ballot, namely that she is not a Brexiter. You might think that both Leadsom and Gove would both be successful in pointing this out to Conservative members as they were both on the same side of the argument, however, investigate further and you reveal that things aren’t as certain as they might appear on the surface.

Recent revelations that as a little as three years ago Leadsom ‘nailed her colours to the mast’ in saying that leaving the EU would be a ‘disaster’ raises issues. What’s important about this is not that Leadsom changed her mind – I don’t doubt for a second, as some have suggested, that the story revealed that she is not ‘pure Brexit’. As a late Leave voter, some of Leadsom’s well put arguments and talking points in the debates helped sway me, and for that she should be congratulated and we should have no reason to doubt her Brexit-credentials. The significance of the leak is its implication for Leadsom’s anti-May strategy after Thursday if she makes it. Whenever she brings up the need for a Brexit PM and May’s Remain support, May can snipe right back with quotes from her past, undermining her argument and her further solidifying May’s position. Gove, by contrast, has been advocating our exit his whole political life stemming from his father’s troubled fishing business that was dealt a fatal blow by the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

It must be kept in mind that this will be no short contest. The word out of the 1922 Committee is that the result will not be announced until September 9 – more than 9 weeks from today. The candidate best placed to take on May will be the one who can sustain the ‘Brexit-PM’ line up to that date – Gove’s clear commitment to Brexit makes him best placed to do that.

But what if it is a short contest? An argument has been and will continually be made that May’s overwhelming parliamentary support – just over 50% in the first round – raises the need for the vote to be cancelled so as to quickly install a safe pair of hands. This is unlikely as the consequences of revoking the democratic voice of thousands of party members will be too high at these particularly fractious political times – no one in the Conservative party wants to be in the same mess Labour finds itself in. However, by mere virtue of calls for a coronation, May is perceived more and more as ‘inevitable’ and the ‘only real option’. This is the second factor that Tory MPs must keep in mind. The thinking behind this is that because of May’s lengthy cabinet experience and given the tumultuous times we’re in, and given further the need for swift and effective action to calm markets and set into motion negotiations, May should be given the premiership before a public vote. The only way to challenge this line will be to put up a candidate whom May’s backers can’t use to contrast with to support this point. Unfortunately, this means that Leadsom must be excluded from our choice. As a Junior Minister, with leaks suggesting a spotty record in Government at best, Leadsom provides prime bait for May to push the line that we simply can’t take the risk with someone with whom we so know so little about. Though a lot of the leaks will be hyperbolic spin, Leadsom’s performance since her declaration suggests that were she go to through the spin-cycle on her side might need to go into over-drive to counter-balance May’s magisterial image. A supposedly ‘shambolic’ hustings performance to MPs and her dumfounded expression after being asked on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show about her tax return, along with a slow trickle of questionable old blog posts and late-night tweets all should worry Tory MPs looking for a candidate who would have any chance of tarnishing May’s regal qualities.

You might say that in order to achieve this you’d have to pick a candidate with no sense radicalism, no fresh policy agenda – essentially a copy-cat bid to May with a different face. This need not be the case. Michael Gove has both weighty cabinet experience and a record of actually having done things with it. 1 Million more children in ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ schools since his pioneering Free and Academy Schools initiative. Long-needed reform of the creaking Victorian Prison system. This tinge of the new – which so many grassroots members admire in Leadsom – is equally found in Gove, not just in rhetoric, but in past and a future policy.

So now as the clock counts down to Thursday’s vote, MPs should leave behind the hectic machinations of the past few days and think towards the summer contest and beyond with these two things in mind. If they don’t, Mrs May will soon be the only claimant to the throne.

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