Alastair Meeks asseses the differing scenarios
In a rational world, the Conservative party would select the candidate who is best able to connect with the concerns of the public and develop and explain Conservative policies to meet those concerns. However, we are dealing with the Conservative party here and the successful candidate is going to need to win over two different electorates long before he or she gets to the voters who will actually select the next government. With the Conservatives supremely complacent that pigs will fly before the British public will make Jeremy Corbyn their Prime Minister, they are settling in to indulge their private fantasies. And what really gets Conservative sap rising is the EU.
The decision about the next Conservative leader will be taken in the wake of a four month referendum campaign in which all other political debate has been seen through the prism of EU membership. The Conservative party’s appetite for further consideration of the subject, far from being sated, will have increased to gargantuan proportions.
We have three permutations to think about. If Leave wins, even by a hairsbreadth, David Cameron’s authority is shot. He can go quickly or he can go slowly but power will reside elsewhere. I expect that he would go quickly. His replacement would then need to lead negotiations with the EU over Britain’s departure terms. That person would need to be someone whose credibility was unshot. So the viable leadership candidates will be exclusively from the Leave side. That rules out most of the Cabinet at a stroke. The winner will presumably be the person viewed as best capable of standing up for Britain in exit negotiations.
If Remain wins by a small margin, the bulk of the Conservative party membership will have voted for Leave. The losing side is unlikely to take defeat with grace. The bulk of the Parliamentary party will want to pull together again and when the time comes, it can be expected to nominate two candidates who are capable of unifying the party again. David Cameron will probably defer his resignation for as long as possible to let passions cool but nevertheless the membership will in all probability select the leader who they consider sounder on the vital question of the age. So the most Eurosceptic candidate will probably win.
If Remain wins by a big margin, the question will be dead for the foreseeable future and the leadership election will take place at a time when it is no longer as salient. There will be irredentist backwoodsmen who will still be writing below the line on Conservative Home threads about Qualified Majority Voting, but the caravan will, by and large, have moved on. The battle will take place on conventional lines.
How likely are each of these probabilities?Â Candidly, I’m not that sure, so I’m going to assign them fairly arbitrarily in an approximate bell curve distribution 25% Leave win, 50% narrow Remain win, 25% big Remain win. You can adjust the percentages to personal taste, of course.
The first thing to notice is that George Osborne, as one of the prominent Cabinet Remainers, is utterly shot on the first permutation and very poorly placed on the second permutation. He only looks reasonably placed on the third permutation and even then he is hardly a slam dunk. You can currently lay him on Betfair at 4/1 or so to me he now looks like an 8/1 shot at best, and that’s probably being kind. This seems quite clearcut.
Indeed, the hopes of anyone else on the Remain side depend first on George Osborne not standing and secondly on Remain winning well. They’re trying to thread a needle. You can disregard them all, pretty much (none of them are short enough priced to be worth laying, even).
That leaves the Leavers. Superficially, Boris Johnson looks immensely well-placed: he was already favourite for the role before he plumped for Leave. He is charismatic and wobbles on and off message in a way that the general public enjoy. But the general public don’t get to choose: that’s down to MPs and then the party faithful. And the party faithful in particular aren’t feeling particularly obliged to consider the views of the general public.
There is a feeling about Boris Johnson that every bandwagon is a vehicle for his ambitions. Many Conservatives distrust the depth of his sincerity. That is by no means usually an insuperable problem for an ambitious Conservative: Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan and David Cameron himself all overcame such concerns when party members decided to choose a leader who would appeal to the public rather than worry too much about ideological purity.
But right now the Conservatives don’t think they need to worry about the opposition, so they can indulge themselves. They may well prefer to opt for a candidate that satisfies them most completely. It won’t matter that every other prominent Leaver Conservative is either strongly disliked by the voters or not conspicuously able (or both): any Leaver with a high sense of self-regard who can get enough support in the Parliamentary party will be well-placed.
There lies the key question: who else can get that support in the Parliamentary party? George Osborne continues to control a large bloc of MPs and if he judges that he cannot win he will choose to be kingmaker. Search for Leavers who are friendly with George Osborne, who he respects and who he could work with. There are no doubt others at more junior ranks who may yet make their way to prominence but it’s hard to look past Michael Gove at 28/1 for next Prime Minister with Paddy Power. Sure, the public hate him. But it’s not about the public, is it?