James Forsyth is always well-informed, and his most recentSun column contained a revelation that we have no reason to disbelieve:
‘There is increasing talk among senior figures in the party that if the former Foreign Secretary comes out on top in the parliamentary rounds, it would be best to skip the members part of the contest and make him Prime Minister straight away.
The argument goes that the polling shows that Johnson is the members’ choice, and so they wouldn’t mind him being crowned.
Also, by ending the contest early, the new Prime Minister would have a chance to get cracking on Brexit.’
Not only are James’s reports routinely reliable, but this fits with my own personal theory that it doesn’t matter how obvious something is, there will always be at least some Conservative MPs capable of ignoring it and coming up with a supposedly ingenious scheme to do the disastrous opposite.
For those Tories who were mulling the idea at the weekend of an early coronation, then today’s result of the first Parliamentary ballot will presumably embolden them. Boris Johnson is a long way head of his rivals, with enough votes to proceed to the next round, and the latest ConservativeHome survey of party members also shows him with an outright majority.
What’s more, CCHQ – utterly skint after Theresa May’s alienation of most donors – has reportedly told all candidates that the two who proceed to a ballot of the membership will be expected to pay £150,000 to cover the cost of hustings. This seems a lot. What kind of hustings do you get for that much money; warm-up entertainment by Siegfried and Roy’s performing white lions, Heston Blumenthal canapes and candidate costumes designed by Liberace? It’s obviously a bad look, despite the fact most candidates would probably be able to fundraise the sum if necessary. But more importantly, it’s a clear deterrent to having a full contest. If you’re through to the final two but polling well behind, there’s a chance you might think it simply isn’t worth the cash.
I’d hoped it would go without repeating, but apparently not, so let’s repeat it again. This contest must run all the way, to a contested ballot of the party membership. Another coronation will not do, and would incur instant and lasting harm, while a contest brings benefits to the country, the government, the party, and the candidates.
Consider the two possibilities. We had a brief contest curtailed by a coronation in 2016. What did it bring us? A winner who had not been made to prove herself on the campaign trail before her party, and who ascended to leadership without even an opportunity for buy-in from the membership. She later struggled on the campaign trail before the nation and alienated her party’s members after attempting to bring them on a journey they had never consented to. The wider public had little chance to get to know her as a would-be Prime Minister before, abracadabra, she materialised as the new occupant of Downing Street.
Alternatively, a contested leadership election, settled by a ballot of the Party membership, brings various benefits. Even the shortened 2016 race showed that presumed front-runners are not inevitable victors, that the pressures of a campaign can reveal instructive things and change results, and that candidates can stumble or soar when confronted by events. There is no such thing as a completely foregone conclusion.
With a full race, the new leader will have the active endorsement of members, as well as MPs, for the first time since 2005 – a valuable thing given the turbulent times we find ourselves in.
Their abilities, and proposals, will have been tested in the glare of the limelight as well as by the combative challenges of their rivals – again, useful for any Prime Minister but particularly Theresa May’s successor.
The electorate at large will still want to pass judgement on them at the ballot box quite soon, and reasonably so, but voters will at least have seen and heard a bit more about their new Prime Minister and what they propose to do in office than if they simply materialised outside Downing Street with all their belongings, ready to move in without any prior warning.
Some MPs may believe that all this is unnecessary – meaning in effect that they believe it can all be left down to them, even if they wouldn’t say so out loud. But it can’t. And it mustn’t.
Yes, everybody wants it decided quickly, and the short timetable for this contest does that. It must be a true contest, fought to the finish.