Rarely has a prime minister looked less authoritative than Theresa May. When, just over a year ago, she was coronated by the Tories in Parliament, the new prime minister was hailed as the new Thatcher. Much like Gordon Brown, she was initially regarded as a more sober, earnest and principled figure than her predecessor. In the twelve months that followed, she set about unravelling that image, until, at last month’s general election, the British people cut her down for her hubris.
Now Mrs May clings to power simply because *almost* no other leadership contender wants to drink from the poisoned chalice that is Brexit. Until we finally leave the EU, in 20 months’ time, the premiership will be drowning in toxicity. May’s authority will never recover, so most Tory MPs have deduced that it would be better to allow her already critically damaged leadership to take the fall for the worst aspects of the Brexit process. And that means leaving her in Number 10, perhaps for a further two years.
Recent political events have reminded us, however, that politics is inherently unpredictable. The economy is slowing down, and while it does not look like it is about to go through the floor, the uncertainty caused by Brexit is a poisonous economic cocktail, the effects of which will become clearer as the months and years progress. If the economy nosedives, May’s already-diminished authority could vanish entirely, and she will have to be removed from office before we leave the EU.
So – who are the runners and riders in the race to replace her?
The current front-runner (if you believe the bookies), Davis is perhaps the only person with a reasonable case to take over at this precise moment, as he is leading the Brexit negotiations. This great strength is also his biggest weakness, as the 68-year old Brexit Secretary effectively has 20 months of inbuilt authority, after which he could very easily go back to being an also-ran. His team are certainly on manoeuvres, with his right-hand man, Andrew Mitchell, scouting for support. Davis can also claim a working-class backstory that no other leading candidate in the race is possessed of (he grew up in a single parent family on a council estate), but the Tories are already making gains on Labour’s core vote – it is the urban middle classes they are losing. Davis currently seems the most likely, but as we get closer to exiting the EU, the pressure on Davis to launch his bid will increase. It may be that it is he who wields the knife, but will he wear the crown? My personal hunch is no.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Boris Johnson will never be PM. Why? Principally because there are far too many Tory MPs who see him as risky, aloof, unprincipled and even unelectable. If he was ever going to be PM, it would’ve been after the EU Referendum last year, when he had, Flashman-like, become the accidental hero of the Brexit movement, adored by the Tory membership. His period as foreign secretary has only gone to highlight his complete inability to avoid gaffes at every turn. He is opposed by the remaining Cameroons because they feel he ‘betrayed’ them over Brexit. He is opposed by Brexiteers because they know he only joined their tribe to further his own prospects. And he is opposed by plenty of other MPs simply because he has never bothered to court them. British politics has certainly become more unpredicable over recent years, but one thing remains certain in my mind: Boris will never get into No. 10.
Everyone’s favourite dark horse, the chancellor is uniquely placed to be the ‘voice of reason’ as Mrs May insists on the madness of “no deal being better than a bad deal.” His main strengths are the impression that he is a safe pair of hands and the fact that he holds the second most powerful office in the land. His main weaknesses are that he is regarded as a ‘wet’ by the right of the Tory party and is simultaneously seen in some quarters as “out of touch”, as his comments on public sector pay last week served to highlight. If he ends up as PM, it will be because he’s the last candidate standing due to the rest having destroyed each other before the end.
One of only two women being discussed by Tory MPs (they may decide they’ve had enough of women for a while), Amber Rudd impressed commentators on all sides with her debate performance during the general election, after Theresa May failed to show up. That she carried this off in the week her father died did not go unnoticed. Ms. Rudd benefits from holding one of the great offices of state, but perhaps her biggest weakness is that she lacks political definition. In a nation that currently looks leaderless, the next prime minister will likely be someone who offers stark certainty – it is hard to imagine the moderate Ms. Rudd doing this. I think she will simply be drowned out, particularly as her tiny constituency majority (346) is looked on dimly by the Tory membership.
I’ve always had a hunch about this guy, although I doubt he’ll make it this time. The Muslim son of a bus driver offers the pragmatic Tories a chance to reach out to Britain’s millions of Muslims and to mitigate against the idea that they are a party of out-of-touch, rich white boys. Mr Javid certainly offers something different, and is an intriguing wildcard prospect. But he is some way back in the field and lacks allies in the parliamentary party. Although he may have a central role in the next administration, he doesn’t as yet seem to have the combination of strengths that the next leader will need to eliminate their rivals. Regarded as a curious mixture of socially awkward and charming by his colleagues, his time may come in the future, but probably not in the next couple of years.
The First Secretary of State has one great strength – he is effectively the Deputy Prime Minister. But he is also the deputy to a prime minister who is already regarded as finished. He cannot, therefore, derive authority from association with her. What seems more likely is that he will have a say in who succeeds her. He may be able to anoint a successor, and to influence the timing of Mrs May’s departure. Much like Amber Rudd, however, Mr Green is not a particularly well-defined politician. He is a grey man in a grey suit, but without the backstory that nullified that weakness in John Major’s case.
When she is not busy “being a mother”, Andrea Leadsom finds time to accrue political capital from other people’s misery, as her unannounced, opportunistic trip to Grenfell Tower revealed. There was no reason for her to be there. She has no political role in relation to the disaster. She was simply trying to look prime ministerial, but instead she looked desperate. After her pathetic and frightening leadership campaign last year, it seems highly unlikely that she will be successful second time around. Although she is a Brexiteer who thinks the media should be more “patriotic” and refrain from criticising the government, so perhaps a large number of Tory MPs will back her. She will still fail.
Another dark horse, Mr Hunt has been health secretary for a remarkably long time. In the Tory party, being health secretary is about surviving, because no Tory will ever be regarded as having done a good job in the post. That Mr Hunt has survived so long in the post (five years) has won him many admirers in the parliamentary party and in the membership. But he risks being forgotten in all the white noise surrounding Brexit. The ugly tragedy of his career may be that he has taken the (deserved) punishment beatings handed out to him for NHS privatisation, only to be rewarded with anonymity. Sad.
I’m not doing this.
Someone we haven’t thought of…
My personal hunch is that the Tories will choose a bolt from the blue, as they did with Cameron in 2005. All of the people mentioned above have significant weaknesses, and several of them are toxic. The Tories are ruthless about power in a way I wish Labour were. Two years is a very long time in politics, and I have a feeling the next Tory PM will attempt to emulate President Macron of France, rather than lurch off to the right. Theresa May attempted to win from a more traditionally Conservative position last month and she failed. The Tory right have got their Brexit and it is difficult to see what they will look to next. I have an instinct that the next Tory leader will be someone we haven’t even thought of. A candidate of the future. Someone who attempts to move beyond the left-right divide that has been so lately sharpened. Far more than David Cameron ever was, a real heir to Blair…