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Choosing Cameron’s successor – the process and the possibles

April 28th, 2016

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Alastair Meeks thinks they’ll select in completely the wrong way

Epigone is an underused word.  Originating from the ancient Greek for “offspring”, it means “undistinguished successor”, referring to the sons of the Seven Against Thebes who sought to avenge their fathers.

Politics is littered with epigoni.  Margaret Thatcher was followed by John Major, who had imbibed the economics but lacked the lustre.  John Major was followed by William Hague, who lacked not just the lustre but also the gravitas.  William Hague was followed by Iain Duncan Smith, who lacked not just the gravitas but any concept of strategy.  When he was replaced by Michael Howard, the Conservative party was in danger of disappearing up its own fundament.

The same point can be illustrated through Labour.  Tony Blair was followed by Gordon Brown, who had spent so long craving the top job that he had forgotten why he wanted it.  Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn further demonstrated the law of diminishing returns, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour exploring the concept of a political party without a functioning hierarchy.  Labour can be expected to recover at some point but long is the way and hard.

In each case the successor was chosen to address some of the perceived weaknesses of the previous leader (in the case of John Major, the ability to unite the party; in the case of William Hague, the ability to unite the party; and in the case of Iain Duncan Smith, the ability to soothe the party’s soul) and in each case the selection process overlooked some of the previous leader’s compensating virtues.

The Conservative party will shortly be required to select a new leader.  They will select in large part on the basis of addressing perceived flaws in the current leader.  So where does David Cameron apparently go wrong?

When David Cameron steps down, whether sooner or later, he will leave a divided and unhappy party behind him.  Many Conservatives think he is insufficiently reliably Conservative and more think he is insufficiently Eurosceptic.  There is no shortage of Conservative MPs who think that he pays insufficient regard to their opinions.  So if one is drawing up an identikit of the next Conservative leader, anyone who is perceived to be trustworthy, Eurosceptic, old school Conservative, a unifier and consultative is going to be off to a flying start.

What does that mean for the betting?  It means that those who trade off their star quality rather than their ideology or who seem careerist are under a serious handicap.  Those who are seen as pivotal in the EU referendum debate on either side (but especially on the Remain side) will find it hard to present themselves as a unity candidate.

None of the front rank candidates clear all these hurdles but some clear more than most.  Boris Johnson hits every single one.  Yet he is currently the front runner in the betting.  He is in with a shout (and a considerably better one than George Osborne, who remains far too short) but he looks less likely than Michael Gove or Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt or Philip Hammond would also meet the required negative attributes better than Boris Johnson if they decide to throw their hats in the ring.

If David Cameron stands down in a couple of years’ time, there will be new contenders to reckon with who will look less sullied than Boris Johnson.  If David Cameron has kept him out of the Cabinet (or given him a menial role) and his period as London Mayor has waned in the public memory, he will look like a much longer shot.   Boris Johnson’s poor referendum campaign means that he is now a clear lay.  I have bet accordingly.

But the Conservatives will go about selecting a leader in completely the wrong way (in fairness, all political parties usually make the same mistake).  As stated above, they are likely to pick their next leader on the basis that he or she does not have faults that David Cameron has – in other words, for what they aren’t rather than for what they are.  When you look at the political leaders who really stood out, they are remembered for their positive attributes.  It would be better to select a leader for those attributes in the first place.  Then we would have rather fewer epigoni.

Alastair Meeks