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Picking the nation’s leader. Why the Conservatives are running out of options

June 18th, 2017

We’ve been here before. For the second time in less than a year, the Conservatives are on the brink of replacing a leader between elections while in power. Yet right now they are in such a tizz, they aren’t considering some of the critical considerations that such a responsibility entails.

If the Conservatives replace Theresa May, they are not just choosing a new leader for themselves but the nation’s Prime Minister. They will find it unusually difficult to justify replacing Theresa May and remaining in office without a further election. The recent election was fought by them almost exclusively on her merits, to the point that the party’s name was almost invisible on much of the campaign’s literature. Two weeks have not yet passed since the general election and if the nation were to have an entirely different proposition imposed on it for the next five years, voters might reasonably conclude that the government lacked any mandate.

That probably won’t bite in the short term. If we can believe anything in the polls any more, it is that the public have definitively lost faith in Theresa May for now. Any replacement will be accepted as the lesser of two evils. But he or she is going to need to be capable of being presented as a continuity candidate (without the identified leadership flaws) for that.

The Conservatives cannot put forward someone without the credentials to fulfil that role, especially with the Brexit negotiations imminent. If they were to choose anyone with inadequate experience would definitely be placing party or ideology before country.

They would also be breaking a long-established practice when replacing Prime Ministers between elections. As I noted last summer, every internal replacement of an incumbent Prime Minister since the Second World War until that point had been either a former Foreign Secretary or a former Chancellor of the Exchequer or both. James Callaghan managed the full set, having previously been Home Secretary as well. The last Prime Minister to replace the incumbent – other than through an election – who had not previously held one of those roles was Balfour, and he was the last man to hold the title of First Lord of the Treasury without being Prime Minister, during his uncle’s ministry. Theresa May had been a very experienced Home Secretary and so she met the experience threshold as well.

Of the names being seriously floated to replace Theresa May, only Philip Hammond really has sufficient experience to be presented as oven-ready. At a push, you might make the case for Boris Johnson or Amber Rudd, though 11 months’ experience in a great office of state where neither has exactly sparkled isn’t exactly compelling. David Davis looks to be the wrong side of the line to me – even if you treat his role in Brexit negotiations as equivalent to a great office of state, the role hasn’t really got going yet.

Some of the names being wishfully floated are ludicrous. Not only is Ruth Davidson entirely lacking in ministerial experience, she isn’t even an MP. The silliest suggestion so far (in a crowded field) was Isabel Oakeshott floating Graham Brady’s name – not only does he not have a jot of ministerial experience, he would struggle to be recognised outside his own front room. But he’s “sound” on Brexit, so that’s alright.

The Conservatives have been in power continuously for seven years, but when it comes to ministers experienced at the highest level, their cupboard is bare. It seems to me that the Conservatives have three options consistent with their responsibilities to the nation: they can struggle on with Theresa May; they can replace her with Philip Hammond; or they can go into voluntary opposition and pick someone else. Anything else would be an insult to democracy.

Alastair Meeks