It has to be May

It has to be May


And the polls and history suggest it will be

When Theresa May pitches her bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party to its members, she will do so with unprecedented support from MPs. More than half voted for her in the first round – the highest total since 1965 in a contested election without an incumbent – and more than 60% backed her in the final MPs’ round: well above the comparable figures for Cameron or IDS at the equivalent stage.

By contrast, were Andrea Leadsom to win, she’d be taking on the job with less positive support than any Tory leader since the party introduced elections. That record’s currently held by IDS who won just 23.5% in the first round of the 2001 contest and was subsequently no-confidenced by his MPs the same parliament; Leadsom took only 20.1%.

Of course, the decision isn’t down to MPs; it’ll be decided by the rank and file membership, although the members will be well aware that MPs can in effect veto their choice in time as they did with Duncan Smith. Not that they should need to. The YouGov poll for The Times this week gave May a 67-33 lead over Leadsom (excluding refusals, don’t knows and the like), and the Survation poll of Conservative councillors found an almost identical split.

That’s not to say it’s all over before it’s begun – a lot can happen in the two months until the members’ vote closes – but May starts with a formidable advantage. In reality, Leadsom can only win if May makes a horrible error or Leadsom can capture the popular imagination. Neither is likely.

Theresa May has built her career on not being seen to make mistakes. At a time when the country needs a steady hand on the tiller and the Conservative Party will be more than happy to contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s protest politics with her own understated competence, her advocates have an easy sell. We can leave the debate as to the extent of her competence aside: if it is Corbyn vs May, that will be the Tories’ pitch to the public. Her biggest failing in government – the inability to reduce net immigration – can hardly be placed entirely at her door, though it remains a negative.

Not half as big as the election negatives Leadsom has built up in the space of only a couple of weeks for inaccuracy and poor judgement though. Those problems are compounded by two more things. Firstly, because she’s so new to the big time, they’re two of very few things that anyone does know about her, and secondly, they tie in to the nature of her bid. It takes an extraordinary degree of self-confidence for a minister not even in the cabinet to believe that they could take on the job of PM today (or at least, in two months). Overstating the importance of one’s jobs in the past and grossly overrating one’s current ability are not dissimilar and both may be revealing of a mind-set of which MPs and party alike should be extremely wary.

Leadsom’s pitch is based on a couple of decent TV debates for Leave in the referendum campaign but that is a far from sufficient basis on which to elect someone to Number Ten. More than 16 million people voted Leave but only a handful could do a tolerable job as PM; Leadsom isn’t one of them. In fact, having voted Leave isn’t even a necessary qualification. Other things being equal, it would be an advantage but other things are very far from equal.

The crucial question though is whether Tory members will see it that way. And the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’. Not only does May outpoll Leadsom 2:1 but the two most important factors to the membership in choosing their preferred candidate are competence as a potential PM and ability to unite the party: both areas where May should – and does – score heavily (from YouGov, 1-4 July). Interestingly, Leadsom’s supporters disagree on those priorities, putting ‘having voted Leave’ top, which suggests that she’s fishing in a shallow pond.

What of history though? Doesn’t that suggest that the membership always goes for the most Eurosceptic candidate? I don’t believe so. That was the case in 2001 and, arguably, in 2005 when Cameron promised to bring the Conservatives out of the EPP, but a sample of two is tiny and hence unreliable, and there were many other reasons the party chose who it did.

Most important, then as now, was the ability to be an effective leader: to unite and to deliver electoral success. Some would undoubtedly question associating IDS with such attributes but that decision has to be seen in the context of the time. Had the Conservatives been in government, the choice might have been different but they were not. Clarke’s stance on the Euro was intolerable to the membership in opposition in a way that it would not necessarily have been in government. As PM, he would have been constrained by cabinet and his MPs; by contrast, Clarke as LotO would have provided an enormous temptation to Blair to simultaneously seek Euro entry and split the Tories. And in opposition, if IDS proved a failure then he could always be replaced before it really mattered.

That’s not the case now. May will never win over the Brexit irreconcilables but she doesn’t need to; she simply has to reassure – as she is doing – that she’ll carry out the electorate’s will. Leadsom is a long way out of her depth and, worryingly, doesn’t seem to know it. That ought to become increasingly apparent to Conservative Party members as the weeks wear on and the media focus on the two women. If backing the favourite isn’t a very exciting option, more value might be found in Ladbrokes market that Leadsom will withdraw from the race before the end of the month at 7/1 (previously tipped on Twitter at 10/1). Given her interview in the Times yesterday and given that ballots won’t go out to members until August, it’s very far from impossible that she might find herself in an irrecoverable position before July’s out.

David Herdson

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