It’s inherently hard to predict who will make it to the final two the next time the Conservative Party holds a leadership election – the fast-changing nature of events, the complexities of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, the risks of walking a media tightrope, there are numerous unpredictable elements to the whittling down process.
It is possible to see some of the possible dividing lines in such a race starting to form, however.
One is Brexit, of course – it’s clear that a major reason why Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab sit at first and second in the Next Tory Leader question on our survey is that they both took a stand in protest at the Prime Minister’s handling of the process. The contest to be seen as the Brexiteer candidate could easily become as intense as the main battle for the leadership.
But another emerging divide is between political generations. It’s becoming a familiar refrain, the idea of moving the leadership on to a “new generation”, or even “skipping a generation”. Most recently, today’s Sun reports Johnny Mercer will speak to the think tank Onward along these lines, making a case that those currently at the top are becoming outdated and outpaced:
“It’s like a runaway horse. Don’t watch it go, or let others be the ones to tame it. The current lot are still in the stable, events have overtaken them and they cannot catch that horse now…We must tame it – our generation. It’s time for a new generation to take over and govern differently”.
It’s interesting to see this argument develop, and a receptive audience for it growing at the same time. In previous decades, such ideas were easily batted away by the counter-argument that it would be unimaginable to make someone Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister without Cabinet experience.
The wipe-outs of 1997, followed by the wilderness years, established the conditions for David Cameron to breach that supposed rule in 2005. His team’s rebuttal line at the time, that he had Shadow Cabinet experience, neutralised the criticism sufficiently to allow him to win, and inadvertently allowed the expectation of top table experience to linger on.
Now, after almost nine years in Government, you might imagine that the old convention of requiring Cabinet experience would have reasserted itself. It is certainly still seen as an advantage – hence people still seek promotion to the Cabinet even in a deeply troubled government – and it holds some sway as a concept, but it isn’t as universal or dominant as it once was.
Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to consider Cabinet experience might be a de-merit in some ways. The Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit – and particularly her concessions at Chequers and since – is deeply unpopular, particularly among the Conservative grassroots and the wider Leave electorate. One can easily imagine how too close association with May herself might be a negative thing in a leadership contest and a subsequent election.
At the same time, there are opportunities for clean-skin candidates to tap into themes which simply wouldn’t be so accessible for an existing Secretary of State, such as greater freedom to criticise government policy. A major challenge for the Conservative Party at the next election will be the need to address voters’ desire for change. After nine years in power, the next leader cannot simply offer more of the same. They will need to offer a new vision for what comes next, after Brexit, after austerity and so on. That will be easier for a “new generation” candidate to do, with less baggage from years in office.
Of course, the value of ministerial experience hasn’t gone away. And serving at the top for longer does imbue a candidate with skills, contacts and loyal supporters which can be hard for a fresh-faced insurgent to acquire.
You can expect that if someone without much ministerial experience does become a serious threat, the fact will be heavily emphasised by their rivals. In response, that candidate will try to make it their selling point, while arguing that real-world experience is as or more valuable than time served in Westminster. Both arguments would find receptive audiences in different parts of the Tory grassroots.
And there is the emergent dividing line: political experience and baggage versus political inexperience and a fresh start. I expect there are several would-be Conservative leaders already working out which side of that contest they wish to stand on, and how best to make the most of their choice.