The perils of not posting your blog post immediately after you’ve written it! I wrote this last night when the two main leadership contenders were Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and he was the bookies’ favourite. Now Michael Gove has entered the race saying “Boris is not a leader”, Johnson’s odds have lengthened significantly and Mrs May is now the favourite. I don’t know how that affects the principles I set out below.
The Conservative Party has begun the nomination process to elect a new party leader and therefore our next Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson is the favourite but my gut tells me that Theresa May will win.
Making pronouncements based on what one’s intensities say is a perilous practice. Often you end up talking shit or vomiting nonsense. Allow me to offer some head-like reasoning for what I feel in my waters.
First, it’s an odd fact of recent history that front-runners in Tory leadership elections tend not to win. Michael Heseltine was defeated by John Major in 1990; Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke were beaten by William Hague in 1997; Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke (again) were beaten by Iain Duncan Smith in 2001; and David Cameron beat David Davis in 2005.
If history stays consistent then Boris Johnson is likely to secure more votes from MPs… but be rejected by the membership.
There is a modern political saying that “he who wields the knife shall never wear the crown” (attributable, I think, to Hesletine by way of Gavin Esler, but clearly inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar and the differing fates of Brutus and Mark Anthony). But why is that?
I think that perhaps Conservatives—both the MPs and in the modern era of party members’ ballots—have an innate distaste for overt political manoeuvrings towards the leadership. Hesletine, Portillo and Davis in particular all built campaign networks in a way that seemed entitled and arrogant, and I do not think that the Conservative Party members took kindly to that kind of presumption.
Boris Johnson exudes entitlement and arrogance. And even the most hardened Euroskeptic can see that his participation in the Leave campaign was political opportunism at its very worst. Smelling power, many Tory MPs might nominate him for the leadership. But in the privacy of a secret ballot I think the ordinary members will punish this behaviour.
There is also the question of image. Following the pivotal role he played in the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson is the source of much attention which is contributing to the sense of chaos. He has made some odd pronouncements about our future relationship with the EU that have fallen apart under scrutiny, and he has been absent from big parliamentary events at which one might have expected a strong, leader-like figure to be present. Above all there is a sense that the Brexit vote has caught him by surprise. Recent events have magnified his already messy, seat-of-his-pants image.
She was barely visible during the referendum campaigning which, in hindsight, seems a wise choice: no-one has emerged from that fight in glory.
The atmosphere in the country and in Westminster is fraught. Anyone who can present a calm and collected facade will be an attractive candidate. Theresa May is doing this. On Monday, The Sun carried a picture of her leaving church with her husband, juxtaposed with a picture of Boris surrounded by photographers on his way to some kind of plotters meeting. Theresa May looks above the fray, while Boris is the fray. I think Conservative Party voters will be attuned to this contrast.
Finally, there is the question of electability. There is actually no legal requirement to have a General Election when a new leader takes over the governing party (James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown waited until they had to; and neither Neville Chamberlain nor Anthony Eden faced the electorate at all as a Prime Minister). Regardless of this, there is a wide expectation, following the Brexit vote and the fact that difficult negotiations are looming, that a new Prime Minister needs a new mandate. Who offers the best chance of electoral success?
On this criteria, I think that Conservative Party members will choose May over Johnson. The Leave Battle Bus, with its misleading slogan offering £350 million to the NHS, has been a focal point for debate in the aftermath of last Thursday’s vote. Remainers are angry that the lie was peddled at all, while many Leavers are upset at having been misled about what was possible. As Dom Beavan puts it, in an amusing rant that has been widely shared on Facebook:
Plus, you’ll never be able to appear on Question Time again without some sturdy Glaswegian nurse asking where the fuck her 350 million quid is. Not only will she have a very good point, she’ll be wearing a T shirt that shows you gurning in front of that fucking bus!
In the minds of the voters, Boris Johnson is now inseparable from that bus. His political opponents will never let him forget it.
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) June 26, 2016
Theresa May has no comparable baggage. Yes, she once called her own side ‘the nasty party’ but that was at least grounded in the real world, whereas Johnson’s bus slogan was a work of demonstrable fiction.
I think Theresa May is more electable that Boris Johnson and I think the Conservative party members will recognise that too.
Finally, Theresa May is just more conservative than Boris Johnson. She has voted for lower taxes and has been a tough but competent Home Secretary. She is church-going (see above) and does not have the chaotic, libertine personal life of Boris Johnson. It is afar easier to make out her polticial positions and she will not have to justify u-turns and flip-flops in the way Johnson will have to in any leadership debates. She’s the better candidate, and I think she will win.
This vexes me greatly, because Theresa May is an opponent of universal human rights. She seemed to have no moral problem in deporting Abu Qatada to Jordan where it was likely he would face trial using evidence obtained through torture. Had the deportation succeeded on her first attempt it would have legitimised torture.
Worse, her only major intervention into the EU referendum debate was to suggest that Britain withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, while remaining in the European Union.
At the time, that position was legally illiterate, because staying within the ECHR is a pre-requisite of being in the EU. Now, however, withdrawing from the convention would be much easier.
So who would I prefer as our next Prime Minister? The chaotic and mendacious Boris Johnson, or the calm and collected Theresa May? I just don’t know.
— Chris Deerin (@chrisdeerin) July 1, 2016