As you’ll have seen, the WA team has developed a runners and riders guide to help you understand the different approaches of the candidates, and the likelihood of their campaigns being a success. We’ll be regularly updating this as the campaigns progress, policy platforms are developed, and the field narrows.
In the meantime, for those of you that can’t get enough of the leadership contest gossip and intrigue, here are some more details about the race so far, WA’s predictions for who’s likely to come out on top, and a timetable for what’s next….. Watch this space!
The list of candidates vying to replace Theresa May has now been finalised. The contest has already seen some early casualties, with James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse bowing out due to a lack of support, and Sam Gyimah joining them shortly after nominations closed. The rules for selecting a new leader have been changed, with the 1922 Committee now requiring candidates to secure eight MP nominations, as opposed to the original two.
What is the state of play?
A clear favourite has emerged in the form of former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Memorably, his 2016 leadership campaign was scuppered by the perceived betrayal of former Vote Leave colleague Michael Gove, and compounded by wide distrust of him within the Parliamentary party. It may be going too far to say that this distrust has evaporated, but in the three years since his last attempt at securing the keys to No.10 the landscape has changed in Johnson’s favour. Gains by Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 and Farage’s Brexit Party in 2019 seem to have convinced swathes of Tory MPs that whatever their personal misgivings about Johnson (be it his frequent and often offensive gaffes, his less than stellar record as Foreign Secretary or his reputation as an often shameless self publicist), they see him as the party’s best bet to hang on to the reins of government. Given his standing with the membership, amongst whom he remains the most popular candidate by some distance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he occupies pole position.
Aside from his commitment to leave the EU on 31st October, deal or no deal, Johnson has pledged to raise the 40 per cent tax rate from £50,000 to £80,000 – a move which is likely to be hugely popular amongst middle income, metropolitan Tory voters who deserted the party in 2017.
One of Johnson’s biggest challengers, Michael Gove, has had a weekend to forget. In a campaign which has been dominated by the past recreational drug use of the candidates, Gove’s use of cocaine while a journalist in the late 90s appears to have been the most damaging, not least as it happened at the same time as he penned an attack on middle class drug users. Having legislated to introduce a lifetime ban for teachers who had used cocaine whilst Education Secretary and implemented harsh sentences for drug-related crimes as Justice Secretary, the revelations, which have been revealed in an upcoming biography by journalist Owen Bennett, could prove very damaging. Despite a campaign launch littered with policy ideas, the early questions focused on Gove’s historic drug-use.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also faced scrutiny over the weekend, largely due to his announcement that he was in favour of reducing the legal limit for abortion to 12 weeks (although he stressed this would not be government policy). Long seen as a political chameleon given his changing stance on Brexit, there remains concern among Conservatives that he is too much of a continuity candidate, with insufficient long-term vision to fend off the challenge from Corbyn and Farage. However, the endorsement of Remainer and leading One Nation Tory Amber Rudd is a boon to his chances of making the final two, as is the endorsement of Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt.
Another candidate to gain an influential backer over the weekend was Home Secretary Sajid Javid, with widely respected Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson pledging her support. This will undoubtedly strengthen Javid’s standing with that wing of the party, as will his pledge to invest more in public spending – particularly education – by slowing the pace of debt reduction. His humble background and his being the first Muslim to hold one of the great offices of state mean there are many within the party who see him as the ideal story of the Conservatives for the 21st Century. A key turning point in the leadership contest will be which two of the three members of the Gove-Hunt-Javid axis anti-Boris MPs will coalesce around. In order to prevent Johnson advancing to the final round (from where he would be in a strong position to win outright), two of these three will need to make the final two to prevent a Johnson coronation.
The other candidates, while still harbouring slim hopes of becoming Prime Minister, are more likely to be aiming for a strong showing which paves the way for a future Cabinet position. Dominic Raab, whose team are believed to be responsible for the Gove story leak, has offered an extreme Brexit position – even threatening to prorogue Parliament to ensure a 31st October exit – but with arch-Brexiteers such as Steve Baker backing Johnson, this stance appears to be increasingly redundant.
Esther McVey has also flirted with this extreme Brexit position, and is seen by some as the kind of blue-collar Conservative that could shore up the vote in target seats in the North. However, despite her hard-line stance on foreign aid and sex education playing well with the party membership, concerns abound regarding her appeal to wider Tory voters.
Andrea Leadsom was the Brexiteer’s choice during the last leadership election in 2016, but unlike Johnson her support doesn’t seem to have broadened second time around. As with Raab, the support of Brexiteers for her former Cabinet colleague is likely to prove fatal.
Health secretary Matt Hancock is occupying a very different position and has already floated major policy proposals such as an insurance scheme for social care. Seen by many to lack the political weight for the top job, he could perhaps shift his attention to securing a plum Cabinet position in the new administration.
Rory Stewart is probably in the same boat as Hancock, although his campaign of talking to ordinary people in a variety of places around the country seems to have captured the imagination, not least of political sketch writers. While many may see it as a gimmick, and the expectation is he will drop out of the race well before the final two, his optimistic message may well land him a top job in Cabinet.
Mark Harper’s USP of having not served in the Cabinet is unlikely to win him much traction among Tory MPs, and his lack of profile surely rules him out.
What happens next?
The next stage is the first round of voting by MPs, which is scheduled to take place on Thursday 13th June. Candidates will need 17 nominations to clear this stage. A further vote will be held on Tuesday 18th June, with the BBC interviewing candidates still in the race. The final two candidates will be put before party members across the UK on 22nd June, with the result announced a month later – due to be the week of 22nd July.
Boris Johnson starts the race as clear favourite. The question is whether his opponents can manufacture a scenario where tactical voting prevents him making the final two, or whether any of them can supplant his favoured status among the Conservative membership. It looks to be a tall order, but as we know, stranger things have (and continue to) happened in UK politics.