Would Tory members rally around a candidate rejected by MPs?
Last month, the Conservative parliamentary party voted to accept a proposed change to the party’s constitution which would return to MPs the final responsibility of electing the party leader. In the last contested election, in 2001, Conservative members chose Iain Duncan Smith, despite his having come second to Kenneth Clarke in the MPs’ ballot.
The constitutional amendment must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the party’s national convention on 27th September, so it is a topic that is still open and still controversial, with the change bitterly opposed by some Conservative members such as our regular contributor “Wat Tyler”, and former MP and chief executive Barry Legg. The uncertainty in exactly how the new leader will be chosen may have made some gamblers wary of making their bets up till now.
But this week, the Guardian‘s Michael White has reported that frontrunner David Davis is not taking sides on the issue. Davis is certainly not ignorant of tactical considerations, and his motivation may be that he can only cause antagonism by adopting a position on an event where he has little influence on the outcome. But he may also have decided that he can win on either system. Similarly, Smiths fan David Cameron may be wondering to himself: “What difference does it make?”.
There seems a pretty good case for saying: it makes none. Discussions between Tory activists who comment on this site tend to put them largely into Davis and Cameron camps – just like the party in parliament. It doesn’t feel as if the difference between MPs and members is big enough for one side to reverse the other’s decision, 2001-style. (And even then, rumour has it that Clarke’s total in the MPs’ vote was inflated by Duncan Smith supporters voting tactically to keep Portillo out of the members’ ballot.)
For gamblers, the key question about the electoral system has been on what it does to Kenneth Clarke’s chances. It’s been reported that Clarke will stand only if MPs have the decisive vote. Conventional wisdom says that the members will never choose him due to his history as an EU enthusiast, whilst the MPs are more inclined to compromise for his advantages in voter perception. But do MPs really feel so differently about Clarke? At every election the parliamentary party becomes more EU-sceptical and younger, with less “living” memory of Clarke’s effectiveness at the despatch box. Around a quarter of the current parliamentary party were newly elected in May this year.
At 9/1, it may be worth backing Clarke in the hope that his odds will shorten as he confirms his decision to stand, and you can then lay off at a profit on Betfair. But don’t aim beyond a modest return from this strategy: holding onto a Clarke bet until the end isn’t advised.
Mike Smithson is on holiday until 5th September.