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.
“The appropriate response to these candidates is Ray Clooney’s: “Sergeant, arrest some of these vicars.”
My main impression of the Conservative leadership race so far is of a repertory theatre that has advertised the wrong play: a small audience has turned up for a serious drama but a very large cast of actors is performing a light farce.
The sheer number of candidates, most of whom have not held high office, suggests irrelevance and frivolity. Many of them seem to be auditioning for the leading role some years hence, but the crisis of the Tories is so grave that any such calculation looks today like a forlorn hope. So why are they cluttering up the stage, bumping into the furniture, and stepping on each other’s lines? And who on earth wrote those lines?
“Not on my watch, President Trump!” – Matt Hancock. “We are the party of deals rather than no deals” – Rory Stewart. Neither sounds exactly convincing. These and other boasts have a tinny fake-heroic sound. To which the appropriate response is Ray Cooney’s classic Whitehall farce line: “Sergeant, arrest some of these vicars.”
Arrests have now been made. The men in grey suits have changed the rules so that a candidate now needs eight – eight! – supporting MPs to mount a challenge. Messrs Hancock and Stewart can probably manage that. Others – not necessarily the worst – have taken the hint and withdrawn gracefully. Some seriousness has been injected.
But the survivors still have trouble finding the words.
That’s understandable on Brexit where, as the guardian of this site has painfully explained, the Tory party has to untangle its own Rubiks Cube: the Tories cannot win a general election without delivering Brexit but they cannot deliver Brexit without winning an election.
I’m not sure that the first half of that conundrum is correct. Last summer, the Tory Whips managed to cobble together a majority against all others, including the ultra-Remain Tories, when it mattered. That’s why, among other consequences, Anna Soubry is now a party leader. And since all parties fear an election, why should we think that even ultra-Remainer Tories will happily lose their seats rather than tolerate a No Deal Brexit?
If Boris Johnson must explain how he will be able to deliver Brexit against a hostile Commons majority, therefore, surely Michael Gove must explain how he will unify the Conservative party on a program of delivering an amended version of the May deal that most Tory MPs and three-quarters of the Party’s activists have already resoundingly rejected.
Not to mention the third dilemma that facing all Tories, candidates or not. If the Tories don’t deliver Brexit soon – and Michael Gove’s pragmatic postponement reeks of indefinite Micawberism – do they really believe that their former voters now streaming to the Brexit party will simply shrug and conclude “Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”? Or will their hatred grow with every passing excuse?
Think of these different dilemmas as Rubik’s Cubed.
Brexit is not the only important issue, of course. When I hear Messrs Hancock and Stewart display their ideological wares, I think kindly: “These may well be the winning issues in the 2035 election.” To be fair, however, none of the candidates seem to be asking: “Are we doing anything for our people now? The self-employed? Home-owners? Small landlords? Small businessmen? The elderly?”
I fear that when we approach them today, they look at us apprehensively as their patients might have looked at Doctors Harold Shipman and Bodkins Adams as they bore down on them smiling a bedside smile and wielding a calming syringe.
John O’Sullivan is a former head of Margaret Thatcher’s Number 10 Policy Unit, and is New Republic’s Editor at Large
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“Pledging more money for education isn’t enough. What do the candidates want to do with it?”
In my recent column on this site putting 20 questions to the potential leaders, I listed common spending demands and asked which, if any, candidates would prioritise.
We have at least one answer – schools. Candidates have been falling over each other to pledge more money. Credit for this should go to the NUT, who have run an extremely effective campaign in the last few years.
What does their choice tell us? First, the incentive to appear fiscally prudent is largely gone. Candidates are increasing public spending, cutting taxes or both. (Although Esther McVey did say she’d pay for it with the aid budget: an intelligent dividing line!)
Second, that while candidates must win among MPs and Conservative members, they recognise they must persuade both groups that they can win with the public. School spending is welcomed to both former Brexit-supporting Tories and defectors to the Liberal Democrats. It allows candidates to say something positive without choosing the electoral coalition they are pursuing (at least for a little longer).
What does it not tell us? Anything about their approach to education or government.
Money is an input, not an outcome. It is easy to spend – doing something useful with it is much harder. And to achieve the latter, you need clear aims. After all real terms, schools spending has gone up enormously in the last few decades. Do we believe that quality has gone up at the same speed?
The vast majority of school spending goes into wages. Giving more money to teachers can help recruit and keep staff (and maybe increase the chances they’ll vote for you) but it doesn’t necessarily translate to children learning more in a classroom.
This, then, is a policy that conceals as much as it reveals. There are some questions that would say much more about what the candidates really believe. How about grammar schools (and, connected, are we most concerned with finding the brightest and doing the best by them, or reducing the gap between all rich and poor?) Do you think extra money in the education system should go into early years, the main school system, or to technical and higher education? If we want to listen to the teaching unions – which Esther McVey suggested – are we also going to listen to them on academies and move back towards council control?
In other words – what do you think should be done with the money and to what end?
Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
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“The task for the next Conservative leader is to fashion a party that provides a home for “decent populists”
If you are a Conservative MP, the questions that you might ask yourself about the contenders for the leadership of your party are: “do they have a vision, the skill to bring us together – and can they beat Jeremy Corbyn?”. Given that almost anyone should be able to accomplish the latter, Tories should be focusing on the first two. On this week’s evidence, they seem oddly preoccupied by the third and least important qualification. That’s perhaps why the only proven vote-winner, Boris Johnson, has emerged as the early front-runner.
By contrast, Dominic Raab, perhaps the man with the clearest “vision” – Britain as a sort of Singapore-on-Thames – ends the week looking like a busted flush. The safe pairs of hands, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, are puffing in Johnson’s wake. We have yet to see if the remodelled Michael Gove, now studiously hiding the light of his his megawatt brain under a bushel, can locate the charm button every leader needs.
As a longtime Labour party member, I’d prefer us to face a stone-cold loser – since we need the Tories to be led by people even less competent and, if this can be imagined, more dislikeable, than the group around Corbyn.
However, given that most of the British people are unlikely to want an anti-semite and his apologists in Downing Street, there must be a case for patriots of every political stamp wanting the winner of this contest to be capable of responding to the extraordinary political times. And that will require levels of political imagination unseen since Thatcher or Blair.
It is increasingly clear that the most significant social divisions in most Western societies today run along identity faultlines. I do not mean by this that the contest should be reduced to some absurd virtue-signalling “Be-Kind-To-Blacks-Women-and-LGBT” competition. The new politics of identity are more subtle. Research shows that our new divisions are more accurately gauged by attitudes to social liberalism – multiculturalism, feminism, for example – than voters’ stance on economic issues. A typical test of tribal affinity might be whether you want to tackle environmental change through muscular state action or through a combination of market incentives and subtle behavioural nudges.
In Donald Trump, the populists have found one template. He has refashioned the Republicans to be an unashamedly white nationalist outfit; to be precise, this is not the same as saying that the party is “racist”, merely that it consciously represents an ethnic interest. Other populists are steadily building tribes that overlap with elements of both the traditional Right and Left families. On the European continent, the absolutists in politics – Marxists, ultra nationalists, eco-warriors and separatists – thrive outside the framework of traditional heterodox national parties. In some they even find a place as junior partners in government – a fantasy entertained, for example, by the SNP.
Happily in the UK, the notion of an ethnic party is unthinkable; I am happy to have played a part in extinguishing the only such organisation of any significance, the BNP. Moreover our electoral system provides just one path to political power: through big major parties which are themselves coalitions.
So the task for the next Conservative leader is to fashion a party that provides a home for what my Policy Exchange colleague David Goodhart calls the “decent populists” – a coalition of people who, when faced by globalisation are more likely to see loss than opportunity. They include those who still see virtue in longstanding traditions and institutions, those who long to live lives anchored in places they recognise from their childhoods, and those who aspire to steady, unflashy professiona or craft occupations with decent rewards for hard work.
In Brexit terms, this looks to me like a coalition of reasoned leavers and lukewarm remainers who understand that other Conservatives may perfectly reasonably have made a different judgement from them about the EU. From where I stand just two candidates seem to be equipped to craft such a coalition: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As often happens in such situations one has the intellect and imagination, the other the guile and charisma. I am just grateful the Conservatives have not yet found a candidate with both sets of qualities.
Trevor Phillips is a writer, broadcaster and businessman. He is the Chair of Green Park Executive Recruitment and of Index On Censorship, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He was President of the John Lewis Partnership Council between 2015-18.
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“This race won’t be all ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit’ – and mustn’t be.”
“Boris Johnson couldn’t get past MPs’” was the prevailing wisdom in the Westminster village for a long time. It doesn’t look that wise or likely to prevail anymore. Johnspn now has more support than any other contender for Theresa May’s job. With the backing of 48 MPs, he has more parliamentary backing than Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart combined. Betfair reports that more than half of the money received from punters on the Conservative leadership race has been staked on The Blond One wearing the Tory crown rather than his trademark bicycle helmet by the July 22nd.
I predict that at least one other piece of conventional wisdom will also be overturned in the weeks ahead. This race won’t be all ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit’ – and mustn’t be. I predict we’ll also see fierce but healthy competition to be the One Nation candidate.
And I mean the Benjamin Disraeli unifying One Nationism rather than Ted Heath’s Made in Brussels version. The duty of the party to reach out to northern, working class and ethnic minority Britons – and all those other communities who have felt alienated from ‘the party of the south and the better off’ is true big tent conservatism.
Ideas of the kind launched this week – such as Rory Stewart’s housebuilding programme or Sajid Javid’s great infrastructure fund – aren’t just morally right but politically essential too. Donald Trump’s 2016 victories in American rust belt states and, much more recently, Scott Morrison’s triumph in less affluent corners of Queensland are proof that a great switcheroo is underway. Richer voters are moving left and poorer voters are moving right. Which candidate can build upon the inroads into once infertile northern, industrial and coastland territories that the EU referendum has begun to feed and water for a Conservative Party that delivers Brexit?
This question will be particularly relevant in the final round, when grassroots members will be in the decision seat. Unlike incumbent Tory MPs, I reckon that the party rank-and-file will be more open to the necessity of policy changes that may risk some Remain-dominated Tory-held seats being replaced by a much bigger number of Leave-majority Labour held seats entering the blue column.
It’s not, after all, just ideology or not wanting an IRA sympathiser for leader that differentiates Tory from Labour members. It’s a hunger for power. The same desire to win that led party members choose David Cameron over David Davis in 2005 will favour the candidate who can most successfully combine big Brexit and big tent Conservatism.
Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome
“Voters also consider Johnson the most electable Conservative candidate with Javid trailing a full twenty points behind.”
Should the self-described “most sophisticated electorate in the world” wish to use data to help inform their decision – and what might they learn from it?
Boris Johnson is the clear member’s favourite on the key performance indicators of strong leader, likability and electability.
Johnson leads all comers on leadership (69 per cent say he would be a strong leader), likability (77 per cent say he is likeable) and electablity (70 per cent say he most likely to win a general election).
Furthermore, Conservative Party members say that Johnson shares their political outlook (69 per cent) and is up to the job (67 per cent).
By comparison, Dominic Raab is the member’s second choice on strong leader (47 per cent) and electability (42 per cent) whilst Sajid Javid is the runner up for likeability (53 per cent).
But amongst the general public, Johnson proves himself a marmite candidate – since, of the main Tory leadership hopefuls, he gets both the highest rating for good prime minister (26 per cent) and the highest rating for bad Prime Minister (55 per cent).
General election voters also consider Johnson the most electable Conservative candidate (37 per cent) with Javid trailing a full twenty points behind (17 per cent). Amongst Conservative 2017 voters this rises still higher, with 56 per cent viewing Johnson as the most electable with Michael Gove in second place on 22 per cent.
On handling Brexit, Johnson again polarises the public at large. If we discount the low name recognition candidates, Johnson is considered to likely do both the best and worst job handling Brexit with 23% thinking he would do a good job and 43% thinking he would do a bad job. Amongst Conservative 2017 voters there is no such doubt however with 44% thinking he would do a good job and 29% saying he would do a bad job.
On likability, the general public has a pretty negative view of the whole of the Conservative field with 58 per cent of voters saying Michael Gove does not have a likeable personality, with 46 per cent for Jeremy Hunt and 40 per cent for Boris Johnson.
Finally, in terms of who could unite or divide the country, Johnson once again achieves both. Eighteen per cent say Johnson could unite Britain whilst 48 per cent of the general public say he would divide Britain. Both these numbers are greater than any other candidate.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov’s –
- Conservative members’ poll: total sample size was 858 Conservative Party Members. Fieldwork was undertaken between 10th – 16th May 2019.
- Nationally representative poll: total sample size was 1,586 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd – 24th May 2019.
- Rating scores can be found on the YouGov Ratings page
Marcus Roberts is Director of International Projects at YouGov.