At the core of Theresa May’s appeal is her reputation – that of someone who doesn’t do dirty deals; avoids gossip, gets on with the job – and does the right thing. We are about to find out whether she deserves it.
Here’s why. As I write, she has the backing of 101 Conservative MPs: more than those of all her rivals added together. It is possible that by Tuesday she will have even more, as others seek to clamber aboard the bandwagon of what they see as the winning candidate. This could allow some of her supporters to take two courses of action. First, to switch their votes to another candidate they believe that she can beat at the membership stage of the contest. Second, to call for that stage to be abandoned altogether – in other words, for May to gain a “coronation”, and Party members to be unconsulted and sidelined.
Either course would endanger the authority of a May victory, with dangerous consequences for the Party and, more importantly, for the country. If you want to know why, glance back at the referendum result.
According to our surveys and to YouGov’s polling, some 60 per cent of Party members voted for Brexit. So, Lord Ashcroft’s research suggests, did 58 per cent of those who voted Tory at the last election. So did more people in London than voted recently for Sadiq Khan, almost two in five Scots, more than two in five Northern Irish, Wales – and England. All in all, 17 million people voted to leave the European Union in this country: more than have voted here for anything else, ever.
It does not necessarily follow that the next Conservative leader must have campaigned for Leave. But it is surely the case that Tory MPs should, all other things being equal, put someone who did before Party members – so that they can choose that person if they wish. And all other things are equal: that’s to say, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom are, in their different ways, credible candidates.
If May is still in pole position next Wednesday morning, and faces Stephen Crabb at the membership stage, the choice will lack legitimacy. For the Conservative Party to present two remainers to its members would be to spit in the face of the country.
The case for a coronation is slightly stronger. It is clearly in the interests of Britain to have a new Prime Minister as soon as possible. But it is also in its interests for the process by which that Prime Minister is created not to be a stitch-up – “business as usual” when the country has just voted for change (especially if the beneficiary did not).
Admittedly, May is unlikely, even if her progress continues apace, to have enough spare votes to take another candidate into the last two. Furthermore, some Tory MPs may have the will for a coronation, but they lack the means. If both candidates in the final two that MPs choose are unwilling to withdraw, there must be a ballot of party members under the terms of its constitution. And it is hard to see Fox or Gove or Leadsom withdrawing, though one never knows.
None the less, May is moving to kill all this speculation off – to halt talk of fixing the ballot and pushing for a coronation. Senior sources in her campaign team insist that she and her team will not authorise, wink at or encourage tactical voting. Furthemore, they say that she wants the contest to go to the membership stage, and will not connive in pressure on other candidates for a coronation. We wait to see what happens next, but the signs are good.
P.S: All this may be out of date by Tuesday. David Cameron is going. Boris Johnson has gone. Michael Gove has broken with both of them. Who knows what the next twist in the plot will be?