— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) July 1, 2016
What to bear in mind when anticipating developments
1. This is not Leave v Remain again
We have just been through a highly divisive referendum campaign and apart from the country itself, nothing was more divided than the Conservative Party. However, divisions can be, and are being, overplayed. Some in the media would have you believe that the Tories are split into two immutably hostile blocks. They’re not. Many on either side were not particularly committed to Leave or to Remain, all the way from the cabinet through to grass-roots members. Just because a majority of Conservative members voted Leave does not mean that Gove, Fox or Leadsom will win.
2. But the EURef campaign does matter
It might not be of overriding importance but it will still play a role. Some irreconcilables would rather chop off their own arm than vote for someone from the other side but those people probably wouldn’t have considered a crossover candidate anyway. For the rest, Europe will inevitably be a huge issue in the campaign, not just the candidates’ stances in the referendum but their position on what happens next.
3. This is two elections, not one
There are two completely different parts to Tory leadership contests, designed to ensure that the eventual leader is acceptable to both members and MPs. It doesn’t always work, as in 2001, but that’s the theory (and in 2001, it’s probable that none of the final three candidates would have been acceptable to both MPs and members, which is why none of them eventually fought the election). No candidate can get the gig without substantial support in both Westminster and the membership at large.
4. Tory elections are usually won on negative factors
Conservative leaders are usually elected as much for who and what they’re not as for who and what they are: the biggest asset a candidate has is not having any strong negatives. That’s how Duncan Smith beat Clarke and Portillo, how Hague beat Clarke, how Major beat Heseltine and to an extent, how Thatcher beat Heath.
5. None of the Leave options really work
If the Conservatives had lost the 2015 general election, Andrea Leadsom might stand a fighting chance but the fact that the Tories are in government ought to rule her out. You simply cannot expect to make a fist of being PM without the experience of cabinet or the leadership of the opposition, especially at a time like this. On the other hand, Fox is too far out of the mainstream without the redeeming feature of electability. He also remains tainted by his resignation. That leaves Gove. Yes, his behaviour towards Boris was ruthless but that characteristic isn’t always viewed entirely negatively in political circles. By contrast, his self-proclaimed lack of suitability for the job is a substantial drawback and will count. However, all else being equal, one of them should make the final two.
6. But if May polls very strongly, her supporters might vote tactically
Someone once called the Tory MPs ‘the most sophisticated electorate in the world’. That was an exaggeration but there can be no doubting the extent of second-guessing and tactical gaming that goes on to try to achieve a desired result. If Theresa May polls extremely strongly in the early rounds – on the current count, she has more backers than the rest put together, albeit with more than half the MPs still to declare – some may take the opportunity to try to lever an easier rival onto the members’ ballot paper. That could prove counterproductive, riling members and sapping momentum from May’s campaign, but might be tried all the same if the opportunity presents itself. If May could pick a candidate for the run-off it would be Crabb. We should watch closely to see whether there’s any evidence of pro-Crabb tactical votes.
7. Ignore the “Favourite doesn’t win” rule
A rule of thumb so strong that it’s almost written in stone is that the favourite never wins the Tory crown. The favourite was Boris and he’s already out; it doesn’t apply now.
8. The worse things are for Labour, the less Tory members and MPs will feel restrained by electoral pressures
Cameron might have been the second-longest serving Conservative leader since Churchill but he was never really loved by the party. It was more than happy to tolerate him while he won but too many felt that he wasn’t really sufficiently one of us. He’s unlikely to end up reviled as Heath and Blair did in their respective parties – his policies never ran that far against the grain. There is no Cameroon candidate but the longer Labour strings out its own internal conflict, the more leeway it gives to the Tory right. If there’s no formal challenge to Corbyn, that will benefit Fox and Leadsom.
9. The new leader needs to be ready for an autumn election
The stated reason would be to gain the public’s backing for the proposed post-Brexit settlement. The unspoken reason would be to capitalise on Labour’s self-mutilation. An autumn election will look like an attractive proposition if it can be finessed around the FTPA, whatever candidates might say now. The MPs, who have as big a vested interest in the outcome of an election as anyone, are therefore likely to tend further towards the safety first candidate i.e. May.
10. There won’t be a coronation
Speculation about a leadership coronation, whereby the second-placed candidate after the MPs rounds withdraws, so negating the need for a members vote, is misplaced. Even if one candidate wins handsomely in the last three, members will expect their right to a say. Selecting leaders and candidates are the two things that party members really get for their money, without having to pay extra. It will go down badly among activists if there’s a Westminster Stitch-Up. Besides, having successfully fought off three rivals, it wouldn’t be in the interests of the second-placed person to then hold back.
Most but not all factors point to May. In experience and temperament, she stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Her quiet Remain stance won’t help her but nor will it be fatal. As long as nothing else she does is, the faults and drawbacks of her opponents will see her through. That it will tweak Labour’s nose to elect a second female leader before Labour (or the Lib Dems) have chosen a first is a bonus.