As the Conservative party leadership contest reaches its final rounds, it has become clear that MPs Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom will be contesting against each other.
Whilst the contest is regulated to ensure that it eliminates other candidates to produce a final of just two, the characters which have been left at the end of this process are politically significant.
Whereas all of the candidates in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest were male, 40% of the contenders in this year’s contest were female – and the final two left in the contest are those two female contenders. Whichever way the contest now precedes, this nation’s next Prime Minister will also be this nation’s second female Prime Minister, and the second female leader that the Conservative Party has enabled to become Prime Minister.
This is politically significant not just in that it shows a Conservative party embracing the equality agenda, but also because it demonstrates the Conservative Party producing Britain’s second state-school-educated female Prime Minister without any all-female shortlists, but based on pure merit and hard-work.
This is undoubtedly to the credit of both the United Kingdom, and the Conservative Party, and underlines the philosophy that equality is much more than a transcendental concept; it is something that we can aspire to achieve through our acts, and deeds.
The choice which now confronts those with the responsibility of making one of those candidates the Conservative party’s next leader, and subsequently, this nation’s next Prime Minister, will now have an enormous decision to make; fortunately, there are a few critical pointers which can help to inform that decision.
One of the core narratives which underpinned David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister was his emphasis on redefining conservativism through focusing on a One Nation, compassionate approach to governance. Through schemes such as the Pupil Premium initiative for disadvantaged schoolchildren, and legislating social reforms, such as the Same-Sex Marriage Act, Cameron embraced a genuine agenda of social justice. The challenge for the next Conservative party leader will be to continue reforming the party to reflect the true nature of diversity that constitutes wider society beyond Westminster, whilst building a united party that can continue to win elections.
Already Andrea Leadsman has expressed her regret at belonging to a party which has passed laws on social issues, such as LGBT+ rights, describing the Same-Sex Marriage as going against the Christian nature of marriage. Unless Leadsom is able to radically change her narrative, this can potentially undermine the one nation approach to governance that political actors such as David Cameron have worked to achieve for over a decade.
On the other hand, Theresa May’s interventionist approach as Home Secretary has caused fears amongst libertarians regarding which side of the surveillance state versus laissez-faire the government will land on.
Both of these are crucial political issues within domestic politics, but have been sidelined by the central issue which is at stake here; Europe, and the European Union. After all, it was arguably David Cameron’s inability to persuade the British electorate to vote to stay in the EU that led to his resignation speech. Although Leadsom and May both campaigned on different sides of the debate, Leadsom was arguably the more vocal of the both, appearing at the Wembley Stadium debate – the largest of such political debates in recent political history. In contrast, May’s advocation of remain was more subtle, perhaps in anticipation of what was to come. Indeed, her stance that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has the potential to appease Conservative Eurosceptics whilst reassuring Conservative remainers that she would adopt a collaborative approach to ensure the best outcomes for all.
Due to this, the EU will invariably be lodged at the back of the Conservative Party’s electorate when they come to vote for their next leader. Whilst they may be tempted to vote for Leadsom as the clear anti-EU candidate who will diligently focus on Britain’s exit as the top priority on her political agenda, a gentle reminder that this vote is for Britain’s next Prime Minister, not simply it’s Brexit negotiator, will do a world of good.
Whilst the European Union issue penetrates a wide-range of issues from economic development to social integration, a One Nation approach is also needed to promote an appreciation of the unique place of a multi-cultural, multi-faith, and multi-ethnic liberal democracy such as Britain has in the world.