Although the field of leadership contenders shrank by two yesterday, it’s still possible more might yet enter the race.
On the tip of the tongue of anyone speculating along those lines are the words “Penny Mordaunt”. The Defence Secretary has long been hailed as a possible leader, and notably refused to answer whether she would stand, when asked yesterday and this morning.
Last week she wrote for this site about the need to “articulate national missions”, and the type of service she believes the next Prime Minister ought to offer party and country. The same article also mentioned a “live consultation” of party members in the form of a conference call, which took place last night.
I dialled in, expecting to hear a sort of phone-in radio show, of the type Theresa May used to hold from time to time, with calls interspersed with not very thinly veiled PR lines from the star of the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually more consultative than I had assumed.
Mordaunt was effectively in the chair, introducing a series of contributions from MPs on various topics. George Freeman, Andrew Bowie, Robert Buckland and Nicky Morgan had been announced as “co-hosts” (though the portion of the call I dialled in for only featured the first three), and delivered musings on the policy questions and challenges raised by various topics.
Refreshingly, given the dominant issue hanging over the race more generally, these were wide-ranging. There were sections on law and order, privacy versus security, planning and housing, how to retain public sector workers, trials of different models of public spending, and so on. From time to time there were callers brought in to ask questions or give their thoughts, but the central function of the call seemed to be the live polling.
Every so often, Mordaunt would deliver a question to those listening, which they could answer by dialling the relevant number on their phone. Some were predictable – “Do you think we should be increasing our spending on defence? I’m asking for a friend, obviously…” (80 per cent said yes) – but they covered a wider scope than we have so far heard discussed in the leadership contest.
A question on housing offered not just the traditional option of planning reform (which won nonetheless) but also floated the idea of innovation in financial products, reforming design standards, and promoting alternative models of ownership.
Another question explored the fault lines between security and privacy in the Party, finding that 62 per cent of callers currently believe the balance to be correct. The use of financial resources, on tax cuts for households versus businesses, and public spending on the alleviation of poverty at home or the promotion of Global Britain abroad, was also explored.
There was plenty more in there. Should HS2 be reviewed? Was it a good idea to have a national day for the whole country to celebrate?
It’s crushingly obvious that there is still some consideration going on of a possible leadership bid. Holding such a call costs money, and generates useful data – neither the spending nor the gathering is likely to be out of idle curiosity alone. But an event of this type in this format could serve dual functions towards that end: measuring the level of grassroots interest in a possible run to decide if it is viable; testing possible policy ideas for an eventual policy platform if the bid goes ahead; and gathering data on the second round electorate, the members, to find out what they are interested in for later targeting.
Now that we know the rules for this contest, it’s getting quite late to for a possible contender decide. Not only are many MPs being snapped up by other candidates, but there is already a bit of an outcry that the field is too large. What’s more, that outcry has led the 1922 Committee to raise the bar for nomination and for getting through the first round.
So anyone who did want to throw their hat in the ring at this stage would instantly face questions about whether they have enough support to get past those stringent rules. A team of (hypothetically) four supportive MPs might not be enough – a new candidate at this stage would, I suspect, have to demonstrate quite swiftly that they were a serious contender for the later rounds.
While Mordaunt is rightly busy with D-Day commemorations today, she has a big decision to make very soon.