In their own way, Agatha Christie novels are sublime works of art. Complaining that they lack plausible characterisation or profound social commentary is as silly as complaining that you can’t enjoy the landscapes in a Bridget Riley: that’s not what they’re trying to do. Mrs Christie successfully provided briskly written puzzles set in a comforting world where her readers would like to live. She fairly set out all the facts yet still managed to surprise them with her resolution of them, leaving them feeling satisfied rather than cheated. Very few writers achieve their aims anything like as completely.
Agatha Christie would have been a good recorder of Conservative party machinations right now. We can see the doomed future victim, beleaguered, surrounded by enemies on all sides, defended by no one. When Theresa May is eventually despatched, we will not need to look far to find culprits. But then we are confronted by a puzzle as formidable as any that she concocted, for all the conceivable replacements seem to be impossible for a variety of reasons.
As an EU migrant (from Belgium, indeed) living in central London, Hercule Poirot would not be the right man for the job: he represents the metropolitan elite and is a citizen of nowhere. So let Miss Marple pick up her knitting and get to work on the problem. As an elderly woman living in the countryside, she at least would be attuned to the concerns of the Conservative party’s membership.
The essential question, she would rapidly realise, is not who but when. For the next leader of the Conservative party will look very different depending on whether the deed is done before or after Brexit and depending on whether the deed is done while the Conservatives remain in government. Different criteria will be important depending on what is required. Let’s run through the permutations.
Before Brexit while the Conservatives are in Government
This would probably require an old-fashioned coup of the type that the Conservatives have historically excelled in. At the moment, the different forces are in an uneasy balance but it wouldn’t take much to upset the equilibrium. The Conservatives would only tolerate a leader who was able to keep the party together on the Brexit negotiations and who had sufficient experience. The possible candidates are the obvious ones: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and, perhaps, Michael Gove. If you’re feeling very adventurous, you might consider Jeremy Hunt too. Philip Hammond is probably too controversial for the shriller Leavers and Boris Johnson’s star has waned (right now he doesn’t look up to his current job, never mind a promotion). The sooner the contest the better, so far as David Davis is concerned, given his age and the likely difficulties of Brexit.
After Brexit while the Conservatives are in Government
This is probably Theresa May’s preferred way out, retiring after having delivered Brexit. A Brexit exit, if you like. The new Conservative leader would be the new Prime Minister, so experience is going to be vital again. But the list of possibles may well be longer by then, with some ministers who aren’t currently in contention having the time to establish themselves. Reliability over Brexit will probably be less important with the important questions settled. So a change of leader then might be better for Philip Hammond. The additional possibles to add to the list include Damian Green and Sajid Javid, but other names could easily emerge from the pack.
Before Brexit while the Conservatives are in Opposition
This is possible. If the Conservatives collapse into incoherence, Jeremy Corbyn might step into the hot seat in the manner that Fortinbras got the crown of Denmark, simply by being in the right place at the right time. Or Theresa May might find herself obliged to call an election, given her non-majority, and lose.
If so, I expect the Conservative party to enjoy the privileges of opposition and choose a leader who they feel good about rather than one to impress the country, which at this time would mean a candidate who is uninterested in making any of the compromises with reality on Brexit that are essential in government. They probably aren’t quite mad enough to choose Jacob Rees-Mogg (the MPs will probably ensure the members don’t have the chance) but every Conservative hardline Leaver who has achieved Cabinet rank will be considering a bid. All the current obvious candidates will look like yesterday’s men and women.
After Brexit while the Conservatives are in Opposition
Is Theresa May really going to make it through to 2022 and fight another election (and lose)? Right now it seems unlikely. At this distance, it’s hard to predict the motivations of the Conservative electorate, though again it seems likely that the Conservatives would look to please themselves rather than the country. It’s pretty fruitless speculating who might be in favour then.
So what does this all mean?
On Betfair there are two relevant markets: Prime Minister After Theresa May and Next Conservative Leader. These are not that actively traded and there are some anomalies. Shop around. We would be looking at some fairly dramatic political developments for a current Conservative to be next Prime Minister yet not also be next leader of the Conservative party. But David Davis and Philip Hammond have consistently traded at shorter prices for the former than the latter.
The permutations listed above are in decreasing order of probability in my view. I reckon it’s at least a 90% chance that Theresa May is replaced as Prime Minister by another Conservative, which means that Jeremy Corbyn is a lay for Prime Minister After Theresa May (even before considering whether he will stand down first).
Some Conservatives (Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Damian Green) have their best shout of taking over if there’s a change in government. Some (Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg) have their best chance to take over in opposition. Those in the former group are best backed on the Next Prime Minister market, those in the latter group should only be backed on the Next Conservative Leader market.
But given that the change is likely to come while the Conservatives are in government and probably sooner rather than later, the only positive bets that appeal to me are Amber Rudd for next Prime Minister at 16, Damian Green for next Prime Minister at 30, Michael Gove for next Conservative leader at 32 and Jeremy Hunt for next Conservative leader at 130 (all prices correct at the time of writing). Everyone else looks too short to me, with the possible exception of Boris Johnson. As usual, this looks like a market to play by laying rather than backing. In other words, this particular detective hasn’t yet solved the case.