Sean Worth is Director of the Westminster Policy Institute and a former Downing Street adviser.
Michael Gove once confessed not to have the “exceptional level of ability required for the job” of Prime Minister. With experience and urging from supporters, he has changed that view, but he was right about the enormity of the position and the special talents it requires. As the remaining Conservative leadership candidates jostle for a place in the final vote, how can we judge whether they are ready for the challenges awaiting them in the top job in British politics?
Starting work in Downing Street as a new special adviser in 2010, I recall receiving the first copy of the Prime Minister’s diary one Monday morning. At first sight of the job of our national political leader on a day-to-day level, my impression immediately was of its sheer gravity. What we all see of the Prime Minister’s role – the television appearances, interviews, speeches and the like – are but periods of respite from what is, behind closed doors, a relentless stream of back-to-back calls for decisions and judgements that would test the absolute limits of intellect and character for even the best of us.
Some thrive in that environment of constant performance, as Tony Blair arguably did and as people I think will come to judge that David Cameron did, in the main. But the job can easily drown you. Remember how Gordon Brown was feted as a political heavyweight while Chancellor, only for the pressures of Number Ten to drive him to a wretched state of near-madness.
As such, and important though the Brexit negotiations will be, they are in truth no great test of what is to come for the next Prime Minister. This is not to belittle the process at all, but it will at no stage require decisions of any higher magnitude than, for example, the military or security-related decisions that a Prime Minister must make in the regular course of their job.
It is for that reason I believe – objectively and with no endorsement here of any candidate – that the idea that only a campaigner for a Leave vote in the referendum is capable of doing the top job is utter nonsense. It is good political rhetoric for the inter-candidate fighting, but has no merit in reality. Objectively, the only candidate who on paper comes close to having a track record that qualifies them to be Prime Minister is Theresa May – simply because the job of Home Secretary is, fairly uniquely among Cabinet ministers, exposed to the regular tests of judgement that a Prime Minister faces on issues of the utmost importance, namely national security.
While May wins hands-down on the ability to manage the executive role of government, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove could convince on the ground of the other principal function that Downing Street must orchestrate – paving the political path to general election victory.
And here is our real problem. We have heard far too little during this leadership contest about any candidates’ strategy for broadening the electoral appeal of the Conservative Party, which in many areas of our country is a mountainous but must-win challenge. This oversight is due only partly to the fact that the top two contenders will focus on winning over the second-stafe ‘selectorate’ of Tory members in due course. There is a real sense of complacency on this issue, due simply to the political vacuum created by Labour’s recent meltdown. The Shadow Cabinet that Jeremy Corbyn announced yesterday is, frankly, a joke – and poses no opposition in almost every departmental brief.
It is inconceivable that this cozy situation will last: either Corbyn will be replaced, or the party will split and reform. Whichever transpires, Labour will regain strength. Current polling also shows clearly that, in spite of Labour’s troubles, the Tories’ lack of appeal in the urban north is still a worry, as is the tenuous hold on 2015 gains from the Lib Dems. Furthermore, in Manchester, London and other major cities, Labour look likely to become a new force of mayoral power which could cement their constituency-level advantages in regions that the Tories must make further progress in to win a clear general election majority. There is a huge amount to do on all these fronts – and the leadership candidates need to tell us what their plan is.
The learning curve for whichever contender eventually enters Downing Street will be far steeper than the one that David Cameron faced. For while he had no prior ministerial experience before becoming Prime Minister, he had a long apprenticeship leading the Opposition. While May appears to be the clear front-runner in terms of votes so far and experience for the top job, we need to hear a lot more about how each candidate will meet the political challenge Downing Street must rise to: winning the next election and crushing a weakened Labour into the dust.