Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of John O’Sullivan, Rachel Wolf, Trevor Phillips, Tim Montgomerie and Marcus Roberts will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the leadership election.
“I’ve watched Michael get things done in government over the last nine years. Here’s my top three lessons.”
I’m in the unusual position of having worked for Boris (my first boss) and Michael (my second). I count myself lucky: both were nice to work for, and both are extraordinary.
I was looking forward to a Boris/Michael race: I thought it would force both candidates to really think through and justify what they would do in government.
Now Johnson should march relatively unchallenged to Number 10. I hope he does –the Party won’t survive another Remain voter being gifted to the country.
So I’m not going to address the leadership race, but it’s probable aftermath. Here, Johnson could learn from his almost-rival. I’ve watched Michael get things done in government over the last nine years. Here’s my top three lessons:
1) In the balance between talent, loyalty, and politics, spend more time on talent. Too many Prime Ministers and ministers have rewarded people (politicians and advisers) because of loyalty or party management. Both are important. But in the end, so is your record.
Gove consistently brought in more talented people, in more positions, than any other cabinet minister. Not just advisers, but former business people, heads, and academics. They weren’t necessarily people he’d known for decades. This is the untold key to how he got things done.
In no 10 it is perfectly credible to have a Nobel prize winner serving you (or equivalent). Pick them. Give them power over things that matter.
Johnson did this to a significant extent in City Hall. He needs to apply this lesson to a much greater degree in government.
2) Have a clear narrative and show progress. Michael’s tenure in education was focused on school autonomy; in justice on prisoner rehabilitation; and in environment on, well, saving the environment. In each case his narrative became the dominant reforming narrative in government because he could articulate what he was trying to do and show progress in getting there. It wasn’t just a menu of policies – it was a direction.
3) Leave the country in a better state than you found it. This is Gove’s mantra in environment. In general, too many politicians seem to want positions for their own sake. Currently, people are betting on Johnson because they think he can win elections – not because of what he might do with power. This is a mistake.
That’s it. Not rocket science. But most politicians fail miserably on these criteria, and it is what Johnson does with power will determine the Conservative Party’s future.
“The next Conservative prime minister would be well advised to use this current House of Commons to deliver Brexit – deal or no deal.”
It’s Brexit, not Boris Johnson, that saves the Tory Party.
Last week I argued that Johnson’s ascension would not automatically equate to the return of Brexit Party defectors come a general election. I said that the key to winning back these Farage Tories in the long term, after a potential honeymoon, likely lay in the actual delivery of Brexit rather than a promise to do so after another general election.
Paul Goodman, good editor that he is, then challenged me to explore this theory further and so (with all the attendant caveats of the dangers of polling hypotheticals!) here it is.
In a nutshell, the data bears the theory out. If the Conservatives deliver Brexit under Jeremy Hunt or Johnson, Farage Tories return. If the Conservatives fail to deliver Brexit and are forced into a general election instead, their Brexit Party defectors cleave to Farage.
In terms of how the front-runners and the scenarios line up we can see that Johnson does perform slightly better than Hunt, but not by a significant extent. Who the leader is seems to make 2-4 percentage points of difference. The key is whether Brexit has been delivered or not, that changes Conservative support levels by 12-14 points.
In short, Johnson may be a little more appealing, but the impact of that is insignificant compared to whether or not Brexit is delivered.
The upshot is this: the next Conservative prime minister would be well advised to use this current House of Commons to deliver Brexit – deal or no deal. The alternative of a ‘We’re almost there!’ general election even under Boris ‘Believe in Britain’ Johnson could well result in dramatic Brexit Party gains.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,641 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 18th – 19th June 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+)
“Watching this leadership contest is a daily reminder that there is a difference; anyone who says they can’t tell one lot apart from the other just isn’t paying attention.”
If you’ve been a TV producer and presenter for almost four decades it’s impossible to watch TV like a normal human being. But not even a blind hermit raised by wolves would have considered this week’s weirdly formatted BBC debate a reasonable test of the remaining candidates.
But my producer’s reflex would definitely have had me shouting down Emily Maitlis’ earpiece to stop banging on at Johnson about the burka. As I wrote here last week:
“…his media inquisitors… appear to many to be defending this misogynistic “expression of Muslimness” – and creating a completely false impression of Islam as a wholly sexist, oppressive creed.”
Little did I guess how quickly and thoroughly the error would backfire. At the end of the week a victorious Johnson surveyed a battleground littered with wounded enemies, principally the BBC.
The imam brought into the debate to have a go at the front runner turned out to be a prolific tweeter of, well, vile sexist and anti-semitic messages. His fellow travellers at the Muslim Council of Britain and in the House of Lords, who eagerly pounced on what they thought would be Johnson’s discomfort, were left to slink back to the shadows, licking their wounds.
As for the run-off, it’s hard to see how the Johnson juggernaut can be derailed. I regret that Conservative MPs failed to put Sajid Javid into the members’ ballot; that would have reassured the wider electorate that the next Prime Minister will not just be the biggest gorilla in a troop of publicly-schooled white boys.
All the same, Javid did well in the campaign. And, let’s face it, if Tories are as prone to racial stereotypes as their enemies would like to think, almost everyone will breathe a sigh of relief that the evidently numerate, clever, Asian boy, with a talent for finance capital, looks like he might be put in charge of the purse strings.
I did learn something new from the series of votes this week. In Labour, we tend to define ourselves by factional loyalty – we are Corbynistas, Watsonites, rugged old-school rightists. Even a few remaindered New Labourites like yours truly remain un-defenestrated (having been expelled, Alastair Campbell is appealing, not a phrase you often hear). We back our faction right or wrong; and we agonise about changing gangs.
Tories are different. None of the candidates seems to have a fan club; after each man or woman dropped out, their followers have given almost no weight to their fallen champion’s recommendations. The question being asked here is: what will he do for me and mine? I think that Johnson’s great attraction – is that he wears the great, capacious coattails of a born winner. Who wouldn’t climb aboard?
This is not a sneer about the Tory character – at its best, Ken Clarke’s Burkean bloody-mindedness can be as noble as Harriet Harman’s Fabian socialism. And the spineless me-tooism characteristic of Labour’s soft left is as despicable as the rabid self-interest of some of the Tory parliamentary party.
But watching this leadership contest is a daily reminder that there is a difference; anyone who says they can’t tell one lot apart from the other just isn’t paying attention.
“Hunt will very likely prove to be a strong opponent, even if an apparently doomed one.”
This was my ideal scenario for the semi-final and final rounds of the leadership contest.
Boris Johnson wins the semi-final convincingly with 212 votes; the other 106 votes are divided as follows: Jeremy Hunt comes in second with 51 votes; Michael Gove falls tantalizingly short at 50 to get a honorable third place; and there are five abstentions.
After their countrywide debating tour, which gets packed houses but which resembles a series of law and economics lectures rather than a boxing championship (and in which discussing Brexit is limited to 15 minutes each night) Johnson wins still more convincingly. After each of these contests the contestants shake hands and all shall be given prizes.
It reminds you of “Alice in Wonderland” perhaps (with me as the Dodo.) And not unreasonably because in such a scenario all shall have prizes because all will have won: Johnson the Tory leadership, Hunt the coveted second place, and Gove the reputation of a sporting loser who had told his supporters to back Johnson for Tory unity and old times’ sake. But the party itself would be the biggest winner.
Well, the membership round is yet to come but the first part of my ideal scenario is coming along nicely. Think of the pitfalls that would be avoided if it continues to hold.
First, The contest performed before the Tory faithful would be between a Leaver and Remainer – a question that all sides agree has now been settled.
If it were Gove versus Johnson, both being Leavers, the debate between them would be whittled down to whether a No Deal Brexit would be an acceptable outcome or a catastrophe. As encouraged and interpreted by a Brexit-averse media, that has the potential to degenerate into an unseemly brawl that would additionally weaken Johnson’s hand in dealing with Tory Remainers after the verdict.
A similar risk obtains because of the events of June 2016. Even if both men behave with superhuman restraint and courtesy, as they almost certainly would, the questioners and the audiences may not. Theresa May’s handling of Brexit since Chequers has depended significantly on the loyalty of Gove, and has also left deep wounds in Tory constituency associations.
The ideal outcome sketched above would advance the healing of those wounds. And, politically speaking, Gove is a young man.
A third consideration – not the avoidance of a pitfall but positive progress towards a united party better able to navigate Brexit -would be that these events would mean the complete defeat of the attempt to block the Tory evolution into a Leave party with neither qualification nor apology. That attempt was the real import of the Rory Stewart caper, supported as it was by May, David Lidington and the Downing Street machine.
It should live to fight another day, but not this side of either Brexit or an election.
And, finally, we don’t want too much excitement. Hunt will very likely prove to be a strong opponent, even if an apparently doomed one. He’s been a good Foreign Secretary who has been bolder on some issues, such as the persecution of Christians, than his predecessors. But a Johnson/Hunt battle will be a reasonably calm and serious debate about practicalities rather than a Götterdämmerung.
“I’m very proud to have led a campaign fourteen years ago to thwart Michael Howard’s attempt to end the say of grassroots Tories in the selection of the Conservative Party.”
Dear fellow Tories or – as many in the media prefer to describe us – my fellow ‘bigots, deplorables and right-wing has-beens’… are you ready for the onslaught?
As we enter the final stage of the race to be the next Conservative leader, there are many who hate the idea that 160,000 Tory members will decide whether it will be Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt who will succeed Theresa May – and they won’t be afraid to keep saying so.
If, for just one minute, you can stop ‘frothing at the mouth about Europe’ and eating babies for breakfast (yawn, yawn, yawn) I’ve got these three facts that you might want to deploy at those haters on social media who insist that we are the haters. Bless ‘em.
1) A Labour friend who knows about these things has persuasively argued that Tory members have been more likely to select ethnic minority and openly gay candidates in open selection meetings than Labour members.
It’s certainly true that from Stratford-upon-Avon to Windsor, and from Arundel and South Downs to Stourbridge, the Tory grassroots have selected and re-selected BME and LGBT Tories. Ruth Davidson regularly tops this website’s survey of which ‘Top Tories’ are performing best.
And by the way – do remind me – which of the two main parties has had two women leaders and which has had none? Only one of them will feature prominently on the walls of Tory Associations in the years ahead though.
2) Tory members are not sealed off from the rest of modern Britain in some sepia-coloured Olde England. Fourteen years ago party members chose David Cameron over David Davis as party leader by two-to-one. They did so, even though the ex-SAS man was almost certainly closer to them ideologically than the former PR man.
They chose Cameron because Tory members (more than their red rosette-wearing equivalents) love being in power – especially when the alternative to having a Tory in Number 10 is that Jeremy Corbyn will be there.
Non-Tory members will have a say in this contest via opinion polls. If YouGov or other polling companies find that Hunt enjoys more support from voters than Johnson, then that will weigh heavily on grassroots’ minds. By the time you’re 57 (our average age) youthful idealism is healthily seasoned with pragmatism.
3) About half of the country has a Tory MP. Half doesn’t. But there are Tory members in every part of Britain – in Labour and SNP strongholds as well as in marginals. When Tory MPs choose a leader at least part of their brain is thinking about who is most likely to keep their seat blue. A good share of Tory members are thinking about how to turn even more of Britain blue. You need both sets of those thoughts.
No system of election is perfect but I’m very proud to have led a campaign fourteen years ago to thwart Michael Howard’s attempt to end the say of grassroots Tories in the selection of the Conservative Party. The victory was one of ConHome’s proudest. The Tory system for choosing who inherits the crown worn by the likes of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher means that the winner enjoys a critical level of support from parliamentary colleagues but also acknowledges the wisdom, experience and voluntary commitment of the party’s rank-and-file membership. Let’s stick up for that system and for ourselves!