This survey finding is very much a game of two halves, as ashen-faced supremo Ron Knee would put it.
The first half sees David Davis topping the named candidates with 24 per cent of the vote, and Boris Johnson coming second with 18 per cent. Scores of this kind are roughly in line with the results when this question was last asked – which takes us back to before Theresa May won the Conservative leadership – if one allows for the distortions of the EU referendum campaign period.
So if we go back to February 2016 we find Liam Fox on 20 per cent and May also on 20 per cent. The next four results going backwards were May 20 per cent, Fox 19 per cent; George Osborne 22 per cent, Johnson 20 per cent; Osborne 23 per cent, Johnson 21 per cent and finally Osborne 32 per cent, Sajid Javid 17 per cent. (That last result was obtained shortly before the 2015 Conservative Party Conference, when the then Chancellor was riding high in the wake of the summer’s general election victory.)
Seen in this light, Davis’s 23 per cent is a respectable score. The Brexit Secretary was a backbencher when ConservativeHome last asked this question, and wasn’t even among the options put to readers at the time. Now he leads the field as a pro-Brexit grown-up and pragmatic loyalist. Johnson’s 18 per cent isn’t a bad rating for him either, if one looks back at the survey results: it is roughly where it was when this question was last being asked in non-referendum campaign time. The Foreign Secretary retains his fan base.
Now we come to the second half of the game.
What is different about the result from the last time this question was asked, back over a year ago, is the non-performance of the other named candidates. Priti Patel’s eight per cent is as high as any of them gets. In short, there is very little support for most of the Cabinet-level candidates we suggested, and no special enthusiasm even for the front-runner.
This brings us to “others”. We apologise to readers for not originally entering a named others category due to a mistake in putting the survey together. This error had the capacity to wreck the survey by boosting the “others” total overall, since we decided to add a named “others” box to the non-named “others” box. However, it doesn’t seem to have done so: our readers, using their common sense, simply abandoned the non-named “others” box for the named one en masse as soon as they had the option of doing so.
So we’re confident that this mistake hasn’t artificially inflated the “others” score in any significant way. And what we duly find is that the others’ total outscores Davis, reaching 30 per cent of the total. For the record, Dominic Raab was top of the write-ins with 17 votes, four short of Damian Green, bottom of the table for our named candidates. Michael Gove also made a bit of a showing. Which confirms that there was no big write-in for Ruth Davidson, a development we were keeping an eye open for.
And here is a smattering of some of the comments from the write-in: “2010 Intake – as yet unnamed”; “new generation needed – where is the new Cameron”; “new young candidate to be identified”; “Johnny Mercer or other young MP not yet visible”; “Tobias Ellwood or a similar backbencher without the ‘taint’ the cabinet members carry”; “Dominic Raab, skip a generation”; “Someone who has not yet come forward…”; “an unknown from the next generation”. The bulk of the write-ins were for 2005, 2010 or even 2015 intake members.
In short, what seems to be happening is that the desire of some Conservative MPs to skip a generation when electing the next Party leader is being mirrored by some activists – or is it the other way round, with the Parliamentarians taking their cue from the members? Either way, we can’t help pointing out that Davis was the favourite when the leadership contest of 2005 took place. He was beaten by a relative unknown – David Cameron.
We may be reading too much into a single finding. But on balance, we’re inclined to open the survey up next month for this question, and return to the spirit of the pre-2015 election period where we named a mass of potential aspirants, including Graham Brady, Andrea Leadsom, Philip Lee, Nicky Morgan, Rory Stewart and Liz Truss. Some of these names plus a few new ones are being floated in the media once again.
So let’s chuck as many as we can credibly find into the seething, bubbling, witches cauldron that is ConHome’s Next Tory Leader question. “Black spirits and white,/ red spirits and grey,/ Mingle, mingle, mingle,/ you that mingle may.”