In the period immediately before the launch of the 2005 leadership election, Tory MPs plotted to remove Party members’ right to vote in it. ConservativeHome, then only a few months old, denounced the scheme, which then fell apart amidst a membership backlash. This proved to be the breakthrough moment for the site and its founder editor, Tim Montgomerie.
More than ten years on, much has changed, and much has not. One of few MP supporters of Tim’s campaign during that election is standing in this one: Theresa May. She is set to make the final. And ConservativeHome is once again championing the right of members to have the final say in the contest. As recently as last weekend, we were arguing against a coronation that would see May enthroned without Party members having a say. She agrees – thus sticking to the position she took over a decade ago. Grant Shapps and a group of Tory MPs want to speed up the timetable, but none of them are kicking against the principle (not even, dare we mention his name this morning, Nick Boles).
Both our own recent survey and a YouGov poll suggest that those members want to see May and Andrea Leadsom in the final. So if Conservative MPs are happy to give them they contest they want, they will vote to put Leadsom through to it today.
None the less, there are other criteria for making the decision, one at least of which is more important. Which of the two is more likely to win a general election in 2020 or before? Gove was unpopular with voters when Education Secretary – the legend is that this is why he moved from the post – and his spectacular break with Boris Johnson has done nothing to boost his standing. But he put up dazzling performances, perhaps the best of the campaign, during referendum TV hustings. Perhaps a few years of solid work could turn his ratings round. Meanwhile, Leadsom, though highly gifted, is an unknown.
The bigger question is more simple: which would make the better Prime Minister, at a time of the greatest national challenge certainly since Suez, probably since 1939? Who is the Churchill of the hour? Gove is a brilliant reformer, a champion of social justice, and has the finest mind of all the candidates. He is also a liberal interventionist (Ken Clarke put the point more directly: “I think with Michael as Prime Minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once”), and has flammable judgement. Leadsom is not a Cabinet Minister.
If she is the candidate that Party members would like to see in the final with May, Gove is the one better qualified to succeed David Cameron in Downing Street, though also the least consensual. A vote for him rather than Leadsom by Conservative MPs today is perhaps best thought of as representing the triumph of hope over inexperience.
It may be that many of those who don’t back May frame their choice not on the basis of which alternative is more likely to win an election, or prove the better Prime Minister, but on who would offer Party members the best choice. Some Gove supporters are claiming that this is a reason for May supporters to vote tactically for their man – that there is nothing dishonourable about striving to put the two most able candidates in the final. But this returns us to where we started. If giving the members the right contest should be the decisive factor, then there is a certain logic in giving them the one they want – Leadsom v May.
Party members will have the right to vote for whoever they please. But what one has a right to do is not always what it is wise to do. If May gets well over half the vote today, she will command a Parliamentary Party consensus. And if MPs give members the choice they want, members in turn should give them the candidate they want – on such numbers, at any rate. For no Party leader can flourish without the backing of those that they must work alongside every day. If you doubt it, look at Jeremy Corbyn.