We changed the presentation our of monthly Next Tory Leader survey result the last time it was published. We usually put a bar chart above the written summary and a results table below it. But last month, we dropped the former, because there are now so many contenders that the chart is too big to fit on the page.
Admittedly, we could have shrunk both by removing some names. Tom Tugendhat has indicated that he will not stand. Last week, Philip Hammond said likewise. Gavin Williamson has been unlikely to throw his hat in the ring for some time. It is perhaps unnecessary for us to include David Lidington. Jacob Rees-Mogg is backing Boris Johnson.
But for every name that we take out, we could put another in. What about Steve Baker, who is being touted by some of his friends? (And under some circumstances by himself.) Or Johnny Mercer? Or, talking of people with a military background, Tobias Ellwood? All have been punted within the recent past. We could quite properly include them – and more. For example, Andrea Leadsom, who isn’t in our table, declared last week, as well as Esther McVey, who is.
Which raises the question: what is going on? Admittedly, more Conservative MPs always express an interest in the leadership than actually stand for it when the chance comes. Some scratch around for support, find it wanting, and quietly pull out before it’s known that they were ever in. Jeremy Hunt pondered standing in 2016. So did Theresa May in 2005.
Next time round (which could be very soon), it will happen again. This site has written before of an Andy Warhol leadership contest, in which a mass of potential contenders will be famous for 15 minutes. But even when the mists clear, there are likely to be more than five runners – the number who stood in the first Parliamentary ballot two years ago. The Commons Library note on Tory leadership election rules suggests that there’s nothing much to stop any Conservative MP who wishes to do so putting his or her name to their colleagues.
So what accounts for the increase in the number of hopefuls? There seem to be three main factors.
First, the calculation by some of the smaller fry that they can push themselves, gather some support, and then strike a deal with one of the bigger fry: I’ll declare for you if you give me a Cabinet job. Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours (as low down as may be required).
But the law of dimishing returns applies: the more potential candidates there are, the fewer the number of Cabinet places that can be promised – assuming that any of the bigger fish are willing to make such pledges, and assuming again that these can be trusted.
In any case, this gambit explains very little. It was no less deployable in 2017 than now. But there were fewer names in circulation before the contest that returned Theresa May.
The second explanation is more telling. Margaret Thatcher was an MP for more than 15 years before becoming Party leader. John Major had served for more than ten; William Hague for a bit less long; Iain Duncan Smith for about the same time.
May had to wait for more than 20 years; Michael Howard for roughly the same period. The big exception to the rule is David Cameron – leader in fewer than five years after entering the Commons. If he could do it, some MPs think, then so can I.
Which takes us to the third and connected reason. Life is speeding up. It was ever thus – but the end of the 24 hour news cycle and the rise of social media has acclerated the pace of change.
Be Liz Truss, Instagram Star, and pose vividly on the front of the Mail on Sunday magazine. Or be Matt Hancock, and star in jeans and T-shirt at an arts and culture event.
And so on. Some will hail this profusion of names as a blessing. Look how many great competitors we have!
ConservativeHome is not so sure. It suits us to run a list with lots of names. But it might not suit the Conservative Party. Indeed, the mass of names may show that it now contains more impetus for splintering and faction, policy or personal, than instinct for purpose and unity. It could be that having a lot of chiefs is the other side of having too few Indians – that’s to say, councillors and activists. Perhaps the excess of candidates is a symptom of illness; of how years of rows over Europe have weakened the Tory body politic’s immunity.
In medieval times, strong monarchs meant barons kept in check which in turn meant civil peace (up to a point). But weak kings meant strong barons which meant bastard feudalism and, in the end, civil war. You will take your own view of whether Theresa May can usefully be compared to Henry VI. But there may something in it. There is a smack of The Hollow Crown about today’s Tory Party.
Dominic Lawson is on to the same point in today’s Sunday Times. He quotes Gilbert and Sullivan: “when everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody”. Without naming names, there are plenty of somebodies near the bottom of our table, commanding derisory shares of the vote. Sure, one of them may ambush his or her opponents, as Margaret Thatcher did in 1975. But one thing’s for sure: not all of them can. The contest may or may not produce a Snow White. But statistically, there are bound to be more than seven dwarves.
The next Conservative leader will face challenges unprecedented in the Party’s post-war history – perhaps ever, assuming that the election takes place soon. Brexit is stuck. The divisions over it, within the Party and outside it, are divisions over other things, too: culture, age, region, – even locality: over how well or badly Britain does its politics.
Andrew Roberts’ book on Churchill is called Walking with Destiny. May’s replacement may or may not walk with destiny, but he will need to stroll hand in hand with luck even to survive. A Tory electoral collapse may be unlikely, but it is possible: the Brexit Party could be changing the rules of the game. Maybe the new leader will be able to create his own team of rivals. But we wouldn’t put money on it.
It’s all your fault, we will doubtless be told. Your blasted website with its tables and surveys. To which we reply that the causes strike us as ranging just a bit wider. And in any event, no potential contender – none – has ever asked for their name to be removed.