Roughly a month before the EU referendum vote, ConservativeHome recommended that, were David Cameron to win it, he should appoint Theresa May as Chancellor. “Conscientious, independent-minded and undeviatingly serious, she would bring a fresh pair of eyes to the Treasury and concentrate on getting the deficit down,” we wrote. A few weeks later, we had another go, praising “the only senior politician who has not been compromised by the corners cut by both sides [of the campaign]; the only one not to have accused colleagues of lying (directly or indirectly), the only one to have struck a balance between leadership ambition and political principle – in short, Theresa May”.
All evidence, were it required, that this site has a lot of time for the Home Secretary. It does not necessarily follow that we believe she should be the next Party leader. The election has another eight weeks or so to run – at least if the timetable that she and we support is adhered to – and her candidacy, like that of others, should be put under a magnifying glass during that period. Furthermore, she backed Remain in that referendum, and the country voted Leave. This is a serious problem for her cause, though not perhaps an insuperable one. But, as we publish this morning, it looks as though she is going to make the final round.
And since she is apparently well-placed to enter it, a consequence is that Stephen Crabb should not. This is in many respects a pity. The Work and Pensions Secretary is running a lively campaign, assisted by the economic grasp of his running-mate, Sajid Javid. Of all the candidates, he best grasps the way in which the referendum campaign has divided Britain, and has a thoughtful programme for dealing with them: read our interview with him elsewhere on this site today. But, like May, he was on the Remain side of that campaign, and the Party would risk a voter and member backlash were it to put two Remainers in the final. None the less, his time may come. Indeed, it’s already here, in the sense that he will be a major player in Cabinet when this leadership contest is over.
If experience counted for more and novelty for less, Liam Fox would be well-placed to make the final. He has served as Defence Secretary and Party Chairman. In the first post, he put in place the reforming plan for the department that Philip Hammond saw through. Though panned by his critics as the back-to-the-future candidate – a nostalgic for a vanished Thatcherite past – there is a lot more to him than that. He has foreign affairs expertise and a deficit reduction preoccupation. This stalwart of the Tory right is also a voice for intergenerational justice and a champion for mental health. He is also the only candidate to have taken an interest in Party reform – and, after all, this is a Party election.
None the less, his declared support is low. It looks as though his moment has never quite some: that 2005 came too early – he ran an energetic campaign then – and that this contest now comes too late. He may well surprise us later today, or be boosted by tactical voting. But his eye seems really set on a return to Cabinet, which the eventual winner would be wise to offer him. He has much to offer.
That leaves Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom.
On paper, it’s no contest. Gove is the more senior of the two and, perhaps because he’s simply had more time at the top, the more substantial a Minister. Indeed, he was the outstanding reforming Minister of the Coalition Government, and may well occupy a similar place in this one if his bid is unsuccessful, and he returns to the Justice Department to see through his work on prison reform.
He is hard to pin down. In journalism, he looked like an unbending man of the Right, supporting capital punishment and opposing much of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Once in the Commons, he was an early moderniser, chairing C-Change. As a Minister, he grew increasingly preoccupied with equal opportunities and social justice: perhaps his early years in Aberdeen, and his relatively modest background, came back to haunt his imagination in his middle years, as he strove to improve state education. Some become more cynical, less idealistic, as they grow older. With Gove, it looks like the reverse. Like some slightly timid people (he hates flying), he has a rather aggressive streak. Republican terrorists, Islamist extremists, aggressive Russians: all preoccupy him.
The full sweep of his thinking is displayed not only in his launch speech but also in his fabulous pre-election Legatum lecture. While Lynton Crosby planned a safe campaign based on a suburban appeal to security, Gove wanted the bourgeoisie to transform themselves into “warriors for the dispossessed” – a characteristically martial image. His pitch in this election is as the candidate of change. If he had declared in the morning after the referendum result, he might have swept this election. If our surveys are anything to go by, Party activists wanted him not only as Deputy Prime Minister but as leader itself. But then came his declaration for Boris Johnson, his savage volte-face and the psychic epidemic that engulfed him and his campaign last week.
It was a reminder that personality may top personnel and policy when Tory MPs come to vote today. The new Party leader will also become Prime Minister. He or she will do so at an unique time of challenge. The Brexit vote is the biggest national event certainly since Suez, and arguably since the Second World War itself. The new Prime Minister will be charged with negotiating the terms of Leave. This will have to be done without an effective Commons majority, with the help of a Party that has recently divided on the issue, and in the wake of a noxiously-fought referendum campaign. It has left seeping wounds. Downing Street’s new occupant will have to respond to terror crises. To deal with Putin. To negotiate an economic policy amidst seething waters. To devise a new foreign policy.
To raise the game of a Whitehall that was completely unprepared for Brexit and a civil service whose morale is deeply shaken – and whose capacities are challenged. To build a new team from scratch. To show grip from day one. To rise to the greatest challenge since Churchill’s. Not to mention being an attractive face for conservatism at the next election and before. All this would be a task to strain Fox or Gove. It will be a supreme test for the third of the Brexiteer candidates if she is successful – Andrea Leadsom.
She is able, courageous, experienced in business, and thoughtful across a range of policy – read her on this site on early years. She has real EU expertise as the force behind Fresh Start. She kept her cool in those trying referendum debates. But she is also untested at Cabinet level. For her to vault into the highest office of state would be unprecedented in modern times. Already, she has had to deal with UKIP backing for her cause, which doesn’t help it.
Such is the choice that Conservative MPs must make today. Our heart says Gove. Our head suspects that this option may now be academic. We hope that the supporters of pro-Leave candidates transfer their backing to other ones, but are conscious that we are pinning that hope on “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.