Ian Whittaker on why Esther McVey might be the one to watch
David’s piece yesterday was very insightful on the mechanics for how a new Conservative leader could be elected. I wanted to add a few thoughts on what has happened over the past week, and what are the betting implications on the political front.
First of all, standing back, the last week has been, objectively, a disaster for Theresa May. That may seem harsh and it puts me odd with David and Mike. But, logically, there is no other conclusion.
In increasing order of importance, she has lost two Cabinet Ministers, seen the President of the United States give succour to Brexiteers, whatever his later comments, and clear signs those who support Brexit, the bedrock of Conservative support, see the Chequers plan as a sell out, with the Conservative vote down 6pc in the Optimum poll today with UKIP rising to 8pc. Also, ominously for May, while Remainers have praised the plan and Brexiteers have condemned it, the middle of the Conservative Party has largely kept its mouth shut, suggesting a “wait and see” attitude. If May was hoping the World Cup and the Trump visit would distract from the Plan, she has been disappointed.
Secondly, I don’t think this is the end of the resignations for May. Ironically, the lack of Brexit related resignations over the past couple of days should probably worry May more. It suggests discipline on the Brexiteers part, realising that announcing resignations when England were playing in the World Cup Semi-Final and Trump was visiting would annoy its supporters ( in fact, The Sun’s front page on Tuesday was effectively a warning not to do so). These events are now over.
And any future departures and actions are likely to be well planned to create maximum harm on May. The most important departure has not been David or Johnson but that of Steve Baker, the arch-Brexiteer. Anyone who read Tim Shipman’s magnus opus on the Brexit vote will know how effectively Baker can coordinate effective guerrilla warfare against the Government. And they are likely to play clever. For example, do we really believe Suella Fernandes staying in Government is because she is convinced of May’s plan or more a way for the Brexiteers to be kept in touch with Government thinking?
What does this mean for the likely course of events?
To me, and I run the risk of being completely wrong, the course is clear. May’s Achilles Heel is not the Brexiteers like JRM but that the priority for most Conservative MPs is keeping their seats. The chances are there will be a continuing deterioration in the Conservative poll position, especially as the EU pushes for further concessions and the likelihood May will give further ground. As that happens, those MPs will become more fearful.
What makes this situation even worse for May is the unusually high number of seats in this Parliament with wafer-thiin majorities. It does not take that many voters to switch sides or abstain for the Conservatives to be looking at its seat tally rapidly falling. And as its pro-Brexit base see May as betraying true Brexit and giving in to the “Remoaners” with some determined to punish the Tories by going for “Anyone but May” that is more than plausible. Both MPs and constituency chairs will turn their thinking to how May is putting their jobs at risk and damaging the Conservative position. And the Brexit rebels will, as that happens, find more recruits to their cause.
Hence, In effect, a re-run of what happened with Thatcher in 1990 over the Poll Tax looks likely with May trying to cling on but the party deciding she is too much of a liability and she needs to go to save their seats. Re the betting implications, I think this makes it more likely May will face a challenge (and go) in 2018, probably towards the end of the year. Several have pointed out here that the unintended consequence of the challenges to Brexit is that, in the event of no-deal being reached, then hard Brexit on WTO terms is the default. That is the “promised land” to the Hardliners. So, the logical conclusion now for the hardliners would be to feed the “Stab in the back” storyline, see the Conservative vote fall further in the polls (helped by rebellions on their part), pull in more MPs who fear for their jobs, and then strike at an optimal point in time when it would become impossible to agree any sort of deal with the EU with the timeline involved. Anytime in 2019 risks being too close to the March 2019 date that the party shirks from a contest. Striking around the time of the Party Conference or afterwards makes more sense.
What about the next Conservative leader? David made a very important point about the rules being more fluid around a contest. If a contest is triggered on the above circumstances, then the 1922 and party machine will be very aware that a selection where only Remainers or soft Brexiteers are put forward as candidates to the membership would lead to open mutiny in the party and would not solve the problem. Thus, as well as speed, the Committee will want to ensure breadth. Don’t expect either of these two groups to win machinations to rig the final selection.
So a more hardline Brexiteer has to be favourite. Who are the candidates? One of the positive aspects of the Chequers result from the next leader betting market is that it has narrowed the market considerably. Any Remainer is obviously out. Those Remainers turned Brexiteers like Hunt, Javid and Williamson are also out as they will be deemed to have put career above principle and will not be trusted. Gove has burnt his bridges by so openly supporting the deal. Mourdant and Fox are out for the same reason as is Raab.
Who does that leave? I think the next leader will have to Cabinet experience because of the tasks facing the Government. So I don’t expect JRM. Davis has ruled himself out. Boris is the obvious one given his resignation but two factors will play against him, firstly he is so associated with London, which may not play well outside the capital, and, less commented on, his seat is not exactly safe, which could be a risk.
Who is left? Notice two minor Cabinet members who have kept quiet on Chequers but who have ambitions. Liz Truss was a remainer but has reinvented herself as a low tax, smaller state, pro Brexit Conservative. For me, though, Esther McVey is the one to watch. She is a Brexiteer and her Northern Working Class roots are likely to appeal to the more Working Class Tory supporters who they are losing now. While she has not resigned, she has not vocally backed Chequers, unlike Mourdant (a mistake on the latter’s part) so may be more open to being “forgiven” on the issue. The NAO issue does not seem to have gained traction. She is 100/1 on Ladbrokes for next PM.
A few other points. If the scenario above plays out, expect 2019 as the election year. A new leader will want to claim authority and Corbyn will be keen to fight. More to the point, a hard Brexit will need to have been seen to have been supported at the polls. Secondly, I don’t understand why there is such a major difference in the odds between the next Conservative leader and the next PM (Esther McVey is 66/1 on the former, 100/1 on the latter). The transition from Cameron to May showed that the two moves are linked and, unless a new leader loses the support of the DUP, it is hard to see how they would not be the next PM.