Considering how fondly it is remembered as a children’s book, The Hobbit has a lot of gore in it. (The alert will already have figured out that I’m going to be talking about Conservative leadership manoeuvrings.) Bilbo Baggins is threatened with imminent devourment on five separate occasions, which would make even the most gung-ho adventurer feel put out.
On the first of these occasions, he has been captured by trolls. They quiz him about whether there are others like him around. “Lots”, he replies before realising that was not particularly smart, “No, none at all”.
Since the inglorious general election last year, the Conservative party has suffered a lot of trolling too. The question of its leadership has been near the forefront of political discussion more or less constantly ever since. Every time Theresa May looks to have got on the front foot, she steps on a rake in the grass.
So what changes have there been since the last time we looked at the Conservative leadership race? Lots and none at all. Theresa May still looks uneasy in her seat, her credibility scarcely improved since she threw away a majority in pursuit of an unobtained mandate. She continues to struggle to balance the competing groupings in the Conservative party and the House of Commons, while carrying out an unequal negotiation with the EU. The absence of an alternative acceptable to a large enough group of Conservatives has kept her in situ. An uneasy equilibrium is maintained.
However, the competing groupings have changed considerably. Immediately after the general election, three big beasts circled her, holding each other at bay: Philip Hammond, David Davis and Boris Johnson. All three are still in government but only Boris Johnson is still seen at present by the betting markets to be in even outside contention for the top job. Philip Hammond has upset too many Leave supporters with his candour and David Davis looks too worn down by the demands of his job. Boris Johnson’s star has also waned with a series of gaffes and displays of disloyalty.
The gap has not been filled by any single candidate. Theresa May has been careful not to create new contenders, in general bringing dutiful plodders rather than sparky highfliers into the Cabinet. So all the stars that have twinkled have been little ones. The competing groupings within the Conservative party now look like collectives rather than packs led by big beasts.
And time has taken its toll. Damian Green, Michael Fallon and now Amber Rudd, all of whom were fancied contenders at one stage, have all been captured by spiders. All this leads to an unusually open contest.
So what of the contenders? As previously, I start from the viewpoint that the most important question is not who but when: when will Theresa May be replaced? If she is replaced otherwise than at an election, the replacement will almost certainly be a Conservative with experience of government at the highest level: Conservative MPs will be loth to put forward to the membership a candidate to run the country on day one who might be out of his or her depth.
How likely is Theresa May to make the next election? She benefits enormously from inertia. For her to go, enough people need to decide that her time is up. In the absence of a clear alternative and with the risks of a leadership election opening up faultlines all over the place, that is going to take some doing. However, her performance in the last year has been lamentable in the main, with no obvious signs of improvement. She has not recovered her authority and looks incapable of doing so. I therefore expect her to be deposed or step down before the next election and possibly much sooner than most people anticipate. Brexit is unlikely to be seen as completed before she goes.
To the betting markets. The first thing that stands out is that Jacob Rees-Mogg is absurdly short. You can lay him on Betfair for next leader at 5.8, as I write. Theresa May has had yet another reshuffle – the third since the election – where she has overlooked his talents. One can make the strong negative inference that Theresa May is not a fan.
His USP is as a fluent and steely advocate for Brexit. The oddity is that this USP is most attractive before Brexit takes place but he would look more credible as a candidate if the Conservatives are replacing Theresa May in opposition or if he has gained more experience, either of which would imply that Brexit has taken place, making his USP that much less compelling. In the absence of even the most junior ministerial experience it is going to take the most monomaniac focus on Brexit for him even to be considered by his fellow MPs. Jacob Rees-Mogg as next Conservative leader is conceivable but it surely isn’t a 4/1 shot (20/1 sounds about right to me at present). Every failure for him to receive advancement is a further weakening of his chances.
You might simply lay him, and I would regard that as sound at present prices. His price is so short that it is distorting the rest of the market, meaning that there must be value out there all over the place. But who to pick?
Many Conservatives see Brexit as Thorin regarded the Arkenstone – the heart of the mountain, a jewel with value beyond measure. Some Conservatives see Brexit as Gollum regarded the ring – their precioussss, something that bewitches them and corrupts them, even if they have no real idea what to do with it. This tendency has only intensified since the referendum vote. In this environment, any attempt to replace Theresa May before Brexit is completely out of the way will mean that many electors will be applying loyalty tests of varying degrees of stringency.
Any candidate who backed Remain is going to need to be pretty damn convincing in their conversion before gaining the trust of those voters. Most are going to fail that test if it is still relevant, and even if it isn’t there’s going to be a residual distrust among ardent Leavers towards people who, as they saw it, were on the wrong side of the defining dividing line of the age. As Bilbo could have told you, skin-changers are discomfiting even if they ultimately turn out to be on your side.
So, putting the pieces together, I’m looking for MPs of fairly senior Cabinet rank who have some presentational skills, who have not become soiled goods and who are not anathema to Leave supporters. Michael Gove at 11 (10/1) is a decent bet, in my view. Sajid Javid’s price has shortened to 16.5 with his promotion to Home Secretary but still looks too long to me, though his Brexit vacillations did him no good at all. Jeremy Hunt at 16 (15/1) looks very good value too – his recantation of Remain seems to have satisfied the backwoodsmen.
But what of Esther McVey? She’s an experienced minister in a senior role who backed Leave. She has the huge potential advantage (in an internal Conservative party election) of being viscerally hated by Labour supporters for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit. She is an experienced presenter: her first career was in television. I got on her at 75 (74/1) and she’s still available at 65 (64/1). Worth a flutter, I think.