June 26, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
There’s something going a bit wrong with the discussions taking place around the leadership of the Conservative Party. People are throwing some rather ‘obvious’ names around as if there is nothing wrong with the Party at the moment and nothing needs to change. It is as if the country would have voted en masse for the Conservatives if only Theresa May hadn’t been leader. Isn’t it time for the party, the greatest election-winning machine in Western politics, to step back and consider its direction?
There are three names in the frame at the moment. David Davis, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd. All there are very much continuity candidates. One has failed to win the leadership already, one is apparently highly divisive inside and outside the party, and one led the Remain campaign but would have to deliver Brexit.
David Davis lost the leadership election to David Cameron in 2005. He did so having been the front runner by a long way. He gave a notably lacklustre speech at the decisive Tory Conference, which contrasted badly with the fresh face of David Cameron. Recently he has made a comeback as the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU. His shambolic appearance in front of the Brexit Select Committee when he showed that despite Theresa May saying no deal was better than a bad deal he had done no planning for no deal didn’t reflect well on him. The way he said there would be a long summer battle over the EU divorce bill then backed down within a day wasn’t ideal. But ultimately, David Davis, despite his working class background, is not a leader who will inspire anyone. A strong cabinet member? Maybe, but not a leader.
Boris Johnson of course went to Eton and Oxford and was a member of the Bullingdon Club. He is seen even more bumbling and shambolic than Davis. His contribution to the Leave campaign angered the soft left, who constantly point to his backing of the ‘350m to the NHS’ slogan. But therein lies the slightly odd paradox. We have a rather hegemonic media commentariat, who tend to be further to the left than the population. They have always had a problem with Boris, and don’t understand his popularity. But it exists. When twice won the race to be London Mayor in a highly left-wing City. His aides still wonder at the excitement he generated when walking through potentially hostile ethnically mixed and poor areas. His decision to join the Leave campaign was highly significant as again he could go to areas of the country that don’t necessarily vote Tory and people would listen to him and cheer him. People don’t understand it, but outside the Westminster bubble, Boris Johnson is one of the most popular Tory politicians in history. Yet, we don’t really know his ideological position, because Boris has not really had to have one. The sense that he is more interested in being PM for being PM’s sake hangs over him. The Tories need a new direction, and is he the person to take them there.
Amber Rudd’s problem is not just that she helped lead the Remain campaign, including representing them at the first big EU referendum debate. Her brother, Roland, was the campaign’s Treasurer. This is a problem as until something reverses it (and something still could) she has to deliver Brexit, and half the country might not trust her will to do that. She also has a majority of 346, which means that she would have to spend a lot of any election campaign in her constituency, and may even lose her seat, which would be particularly embarrassing. Rudd’s own personal ideology isn’t clear either. She did fine in the ridiculous position of representing her leader in the leader’s debate during the election, but the current political situation around Brexit and her own seat seems to mitigate against her.
What is the solution? The reality is that the Conservative Party needs to take a step back and work out what kind of Conservative Party is needed right now. Conservatism is more of a state of mind than an ideology in my view, and they have tended through the years to try to do what works and what keeps them in Government rather than follow a straight ideological course. The country is ready for change, and tired of austerity, and whilst some hard choices are needed to be made, they need to made differently.
Buried away on the backbenches, like David Cameron was, could be the person who can take the party forward, offering the country an answer to Jeremy Corbyn in a way that Theresa May didn’t. That doesn’t mean they should find someone to bribe the many with the money of the few, nor call for the requisition of private property. But they should recognise what he has tapped into – the inter-generational imbalances and the alternative economic models – and respond appropriately, possibly with a fresh face far more difficult to characterise as a typical Tory. I’ll give you a name – Johnny Mercer.