Most Con leaders were off the radar four years before they got the job
The clock is ticking on David Cameronâ€™s leadership. As delegates meet for the first Conservative conference of his last term, minds will already be turning to the question of who will succeed him. Itâ€™s probably far too soon to be doing so.
Ever since the Magic Circle method of election was abolished, the Conservatives have consistently surprised with their choices. In fact, four years before they became leader, most of those who were ultimately successful were a long way from the front of the race:
– In 1961, Heath was effectively Minister for EEC entry; a technical position for a technical man. He wouldnâ€™t be â€˜nextâ€™ leader anyway (Douglas-Home was), but nor was he likely to become leader any time soon at all: too young, too junior and insufficiently charismatic.
– In 1971, Thatcher was Education Secretary and token female cabinet minister. Apart from the then improbability of a woman becoming leader, Thatcher was behind Joseph as a candidate of the right and behind many others in seniority.
– In 1986, Major was a minister of state for Social Security. He might have been seen as cabinet material but the idea of him becoming PM within four years would have been laughable.
– In 1993, Hague was Norman Lamontâ€™s PPS. Heâ€™d been a potential future leader since he was sixteen but was still only 32 at this point and barely in government: the next-but-one or â€“two at best.
– In 1997, Duncan Smith had only just left the backbenches after a parliament spent opposing the Maastricht Treaty. Not behaviour likely to command authority as leader and not a career upon which to base a bid.
– In 1999, Michael Howard looked to have retired from front-line politics, having just left the shadow cabinet. IDSâ€™ short reign meant he wouldnâ€™t be â€˜nextâ€™ leader but after Widdicombeâ€™s barbs, the idea of him as a unifying candidate seemed remote. And if â€“ as seemed likely â€“ Hague failed in 2001, then Clarke or Portillo were far more likely to succeed him.
– In 2001, Cameron was a newly-elected MP; even less experienced, though slightly older, than Hague at the same point. The chances of him being leader within four years (but like Heath and Howard, not â€˜nextâ€™ leader), would have been astronomical.
So where does that leave us now? Should we write off Osborne (15/8), Boris (9/2) and May (9/1)? Not necessarily but I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any value in those prices. While thereâ€™s plenty of opportunity for events to intercede in Cameronâ€™s leadership, the same can be said for their careers.
Johnson in particular is woefully mispriced, a legacy, perhaps, of his pre-election chances. Had Miliband become PM, Boris might have been an excellent contrast as Leader of the Opposition and with the Toriesâ€™ ability to remove poor leaders, worth a roll of the dice at the start of a parliament. Choosing the replacement for a sitting PM, on the other hand, is a different matter.
May too has probably had her chance. Sheâ€™s not done a bad job at the Home office â€“ a notoriously career-wrecking post â€“ but nor has it been a platform for prominence. At best she might be a safety-first choice but even there, not the first safety-first choice.
And then thereâ€™s Osborne: Cameronâ€™s natural successor in many ways. But therein lies the problem. After ten years as PM and fourteen as leader, the party and the country may well not be in the mood for a continuity candidate â€“ and thatâ€™s assuming that heâ€™s kept control of an economy which still has significant imbalances, not least the government deficit. Even if the economy doesnâ€™t go badly wrong, Osborneâ€™s chances will still be impeded by him neither looking nor sounding a leader; quite possibly to the extent of him choosing not to run, again.
Now, we shouldnâ€™t go too far in writing off favourites. Although the last clear pre-race favourite to win was Eden, some sixty years ago, several others have come very close: Heseltine would have beaten Thatcher in a second round, and Portillo came within a vote of forcing IDS out of the race, for example. â€˜Tory favourites donâ€™t winâ€™ is a rule of thumb, not an iron law, particularly if the change is in government rather than opposition.
And being in government should narrow the field: a Cameron- or Hague-like meteoric ascent from the back-benches is much harder. Of other cabinet ministers, Sajid Javid has been tipped on the site for a while and at 10/1 is still value. Of the many dark horses, a lot are not even quoted. To give one example, no bookie bar Ladbrokes even gives odds on the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands (100/1). While thatâ€™s more an observation than a tip â€“ I donâ€™t know enough about him to be able to do that â€“ his inside path to the cabinet table, through the Treasury and Whipâ€™s Office, suggests he may well go further.
There is, however, an elephant in the room which needs mentioning: the EU referendum. The next Conservative leadership election may be in 2019 if all goes to Cameronâ€™s plan, or it may be a good deal earlier. If the referendum does go ill for the PM, the relatively Eurosceptic Hammond (25/1, Ladbrokes), would come into play as a potential unity candidate capable of handling the withdrawal negotiations, assuming he can maintain his Eurosceptic credentials before the referendum. Alternatively, if a Conservative MP makes the running as the effective leader of the Leave campaign, whatever Farage or Lawson or whoever is nominally the head might do, then a victory for that side could easily propel them to a vacant leadership in much the way it did for Jim Murphy (for all the good it did him), or in a similar manner to Jeremy Corbyn. Owen Paterson (66/1, Hills) was mentioned in that context in yesterdayâ€™s morning thread though. In normal times, Paterson would have too many negatives to be leadership material but the aftermath of a referendum the PM had lost would not be normal times.
One other left-field possibility is Rory Stewart (66/1, Ladbrokes). In some ways a glorious youthful relic, his undoubted multiple talents would be more suited to a politician of a bygone era but his media skills are very much of the twenty-first century. He will never be a grey-suit politician but if in the right place at the right time could become an unexpected star. Independently-minded, I would not be surprised to see him vote for Leave if Cameron comes back with an insufficiently good deal, and that could be exactly in line with the mood of the country. (Stewart also comes with the advantage that he may be a more conventional option come 2019 if the vote is to Stay).
But for now, other than such dabbles on outsiders, the best bet is to leave well alone.