Another grey man might be just the thing to pick up the pieces
If asked for a role model, few aspiring politicians would opt for John Major. Unfashionable, uncharismatic, comprehensively battered at the 1997 election: why would they? Yet the travails of the 1992-7 parliament culminating in that electoral apocalypse overshadow what he achieved in his first 18 months: reuniting a party riven by Europe and re-establishing the Conservatives as economically competent, ideologically pragmatic and on the side of ordinary people. Plus Ã§a change.
Fast forward to the present and to the statement that Majorâ€™s successor-but-three as Conservative leader gave, that he will not resign whatever the outcome of the referendum this June. That might or might not be Cameronâ€™s intent (he could hardly say any different without risking Remainâ€™s chances, for fear of giving Tory opponents an incentive to vote Leave), but even if it is, the matter doesnâ€™t lie entirely within his control.
Thatâ€™s not to say that the one will necessarily follow the other but thereâ€™s a strong chance it would. So suppose Cameron does fall this summer. The new leader will almost certainly be either Boris or one of the current cabinet. Unlike in Labour, Conservative members (never mind â€˜supportersâ€™) will not get the chance to vote for mavericks that the MPs donâ€™t support. So who would they get the chance to vote for?
Precedent is not everything but it can often be a very good guide and there are two worth considering here. Firstly, every midterm change of PM since WWII has seen either the Chancellor or the Foreign Secretary take the top job. Secondly, Conservative leaders are invariably chosen as much for who and what they are not as for what they are â€“ in other words, a candidate without strong negatives starts at a considerable advantage.
That first point can be overstated. We certainly shouldnâ€™t rule out Boris or May or Gove (for example) just because of their current job. Thereâ€™ve only been six midterm changes of PM since 1945 and in most of them there were serious candidates who held neither springboard Great Office.
But the second point is one to take very seriously. Almost every current leading candidate to take over from Cameron has at least one big question mark hanging over them, whether that be political judgement, public popularity, experience, media ability or whatever.
By contrast, Philip Hammond doesnâ€™t. True, as Foreign Secretary, he cannot entirely disassociate himself from Cameronâ€™s referendum. If there is a leadership change this summer then it follows that Conservative voters, never mind members, will have rejected the deal on offer and so heâ€™d find himself on the wrong side of that divide. However, heâ€™s kept a remarkably low profile in the campaign so far and the negotiations themselves were very much Cameronâ€™s baby. Hammond may have done some bag-carrying but heâ€™s not deeply complicit. In fact, if there were a withdrawal to negotiate, a former Foreign Secretary might be a good person to lead it.
Indeed, a safe pair of hands might well be seen by the Conservatives as the ideal contrast to Labourâ€™s unorthodox choice as leader.
The question is whether Hammond could secure the support of enough MPs in the first phase to make it onto the ballot paper. After the recent dimming of the stars of Osborne, Boris and Javid, there has to be a realistic chance; none of his potential opponents appears to be the beneficiary of any groundswell of support.
It may well of course be that there isnâ€™t a leadership election this year. Cameron may comfortably win his referendum, or he may survive a different result anyway. All the same, the 28/1 available for him represents good odds that are only realistically explicable by his lack of visibility. On any other consideration, heâ€™d be given a much better chance.