Since the referendum and David Cameron’s resignation, the chaos that has consumed Great Britain has been seen nowhere more clearly than in Cameron’s own Conservative party. The leadership contest it triggered has been filled with treachery, uncertainty and swift changes in the status quo. Five candidates are in the running, a figure that MPs will whittle down to two, before the entire Conservative membership chooses between them.
So far it has been as much a story about one person who will not be running to replace Cameron in September as the five who are. Indeed, larger-than-life leave campaigner Boris Johnson was installed as the odds-on favourite to become our next Prime Minister in the days that followed the PM standing down. Yet in the aftermath of what has been dubbed the ‘cuckoo nest plot’ orchestrated by Michael Gove, Johnson has announced that he will not be running. The new favourite is Home Secretary Theresa May, but she faces challenges from Gove himself, as well as Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb.
Overall, Theresa May is a strong but imperfect candidate.
Theresa May is the favourite for a reason. MP for Maidenhead since 1997, she was in the shadow cabinet for over ten years, becoming a key figure within the Conservative Party. She is neither charismatic nor charming, but that makes her ascent based on her convictions, substance and effectiveness even more impressive. In 2010, she was appointed to a position often cast as a poisoned chalice – that of Home Secretary. She has been in the role ever since, making her the longest-serving Home Secretary since the Second World War. She’s very well-qualified and has a great deal of support amongst Conservative MPs. What’s not to like?
Well, the most important concern for Tory voters is that she campaigned to remain, putting her at odds with the majority of the electorate. Furthermore, whilst she has avoided controversy as Home Secretary, she has come under intense criticism from some for her overbearing Snooper’s Charter and stern, borderline cruel, policies on immigration. Stories like that of Isa Muazu, who was deported to Nigeria despite doctors saying it could kill him, are unlikely to go down well with some sections of the public. Conservative Party members will have to consider her lack of charm and likeability. She is not a photogenic heir to Blair or Cameron, and if Labour gets their act together her lack of charisma may become a key factor for the next general election. Overall, Theresa May is a strong but imperfect candidate. One you would expect to win but one who will come under pressure if her rivals rally effectively.
Following the complete list of those running being announced, many expected her biggest rival to be Michael Gove. The Justice Secretary was one of leave’s most senior campaigners, leading the intellectual argument for ‘Brexit’. Inarguably one of the most intelligent advocates of leaving the European Union, he never appeared to desire the role of Conservative Party leader. He spoke of how he had neither the requisite skills, nor temperament, and was expected to support Boris Johnson’s campaign.
His decision not to, whether it was as a result of genuine doubts about Boris or raw ambition, could not have been more disloyal or uncomfortable. The betrayal of Johnson has left a sour taste in the mouths of Tory MPs and the party members, of whom Boris was beloved. The wider public have also not warmed to Gove. He was a controversial Education Secretary and as Ian Dunt put it “he comes across as a bit odd in a Miliband-eating-a-bacon-sandwich sort of way”. Indeed, since he announced his candidacy, his odds of being the next Prime Minister have only lengthened, and it’s difficult to see what could cause this trend to reverse.
Whilst both Michael Gove and Theresa May were both household names prior to the referendum, it has provided a platform for the meteoric rise of Andrea Leadsom. An MP only since 2010, she became Energy Minister in 2015 and was one of Brexit’s foremost campaigners. Iain Duncan Smith has become the first prominent Conservative candidate to back her but do not expect him to be the last. She shone during the TV debates and has a charm that cannot be seen with either May or Gove. Furthermore, she has been using her own and May’s contrasting views on Europe to intimate she is the one with a true popular mandate. Her major drawback is a lack of experience – she has never been in the cabinet – but she has countered with her experience in the private sector running businesses and charities. She is the true dark horse of this contest, and will likely be Theresa May’s biggest rival for leadership.
Stephen Crabb’s prospects for the future are rosier but this leadership contest has come at the wrong time for him.
The final two candidates are Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb. Neither seems remotely likely to be our next Prime Minister. The bid is too late for the former and too early for the latter. A former defence secretary, Fox came third in the 2005 leadership contest, becoming a key part of the Conservative Party that won a plurality in 2010. However, a lobbying row in 2011 led to his resignation from the cabinet and the end of any real leadership ambition. Stephen Crabb’s prospects for the future are rosier but this leadership contest has come at the wrong time for him. Like Leadsom he lacks experience, but he did not campaign for Brexit and has not received the same boost in profile. His compelling backstory and compassionate style of Conservatism may make him a serious player in years to come but he stands very little chance of winning this time around.
The battle to be our next Prime Minister looks increasingly likely to come down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. The former has experience and status but the latter has charm, momentum and firmly supports the mandate that the referendum set out. It looks likely to be a close and decisive battle and the stakes could not be higher. David Cameron’s legacy will be our departure from the European Union. It is up to one of these candidates to ensure that this sorry tale comes to the best conclusion possible.