Thursday’s referendum result would have broken a less resilient man than David Cameron, and his care for the future of the Conservative Party as he believes it should be is a tribute to his toughness. In his resignation statement yesterday, he said that -
“There is no need for a precise timetable today, but in my view we should aim to have a new Prime Minister in place by the start of the Conservative Party Conference in October. Delivering stability will be important and I will continue in post as Prime Minister with my Cabinet for the next three months.”
Party members received an e-mail yesterday from Andrew Feldman saying that -
“The Prime Minister has asked me to continue to serve as Party Chairman whilst the leadership election takes place, and to ensure that Conference is delivered in the autumn. I will step down when the Prime Minister leaves Downing Street.”
In other words, the Prime Minister wants to maintain as much influence over the coming leadership election as he can exercise under the circumstances. In his view, it should be kept short; his friend, Lord Feldman, should continue to run CCHQ, which will oversee the contest, and George Osborne should remain in office throughout.
The timetable of such a contest would see MPs make their decision about which two candidates should be put before party members before the Commons rises on July 21 – assuming that the rules which govern the election are not changed. The second stage of the leadership election would thus run through August and September, and the new leader would make his or her first speech to Party Conference in early October.
There are two views of this plan.
The first is that is either right in itself or inevitable under the circumstances, or both. The country needs a new Prime Minister as quickly as possible. End of discussion.
The second is that either the timetable or the framework or both are wrong. On the timetable, some MPs are arguing that it is unreasonably rushed. The Party is about in effect to choose the next Prime Minister as well as its next leader. For this reason, they say, they should not be forced to make their own decision in less than a month, and Party members should not be compelled to make theirs during the August and September dog days when many of them, and much of the country, is on holiday.
The 1922 Committee Executive meets on Monday. I gather that it has already received representations from MPs arguing that this timetable should be put back by a month or so, which would enable Party members to have a look at potential candidates in much the same way as they were able to in 2005.
Whatever timetable is eventually agreed by the 1922 Executive and the Party Board, I am not at all sure that Cameron is control of the date of his own departure. He must live with whatever timetable is set for the election – since the only alternative would be for him to leave Downing Street before it is concluded, which would require a stand-in Prime Minister to be found. This could plunge the country into chaos.
So what should happen next? My own view is that there is no practicable alternative to a short leadership election. The country indeed needs a new Prime Minister as swiftly as possible.
And although the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary are now broken-backed, any temporary replacements would have no authority either, so an immediate Cabinet reshuffle would make little sense. But, given the fluidity of the present situation, it may prove impossible not to have one before October. We shall see.
The main question over the proposed process and timetable that remains is a simple one. Given the importance of the role of CCHQ in the contest, should the Party Chairman be neutral between the contenders? If so, it is very hard to see how Lord Feldman can fulfil that condition. Though an effective holder of the post, he has never been an elected politician. He it because he is a friend of the Prime Minister.
It does not not follow that because the Cabinet should be left in place for the short-term the Party Chairman must, too. There is a strong case for the appointment of someone who is strictly neutral between the main potential contenders – who, this morning, look like being Johnson, Theresa May, a “Stop Johnson” pro-Leave candidate (perhaps Andrea Leadsom) and Michael Gove if he is willing to stand, which he may well not be.