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If not May, then who?

February 10th, 2018

Assessing the runners and riders of the next Tory leadership contest

Correctly identifying the next Conservative leader is a notoriously tricky task. While the golden rule is to lay the favourite – something which can accumulate good profits over a prolonged period – it’s still quite a cautious strategy. The more ambitious, but much more difficult, one is to try to back the winner.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible and now that the latest bout of speculation over a potential Vote of No Confidence in Theresa May’s leadership has subsided, it’s as good a time as any to try to do so. Before going there, however, two points: one on the timescale and one on the process.

The betting is that May will go this year (evens), with 2019 by far the next most favoured (9/4 – both Ladbrokes). I think that’s a little too weighted to this year. As I wrote last month, any change this year will be hugely disruptive to Brexit; the earliest clean change that can be made is in the summer of 2019. However, as we know, a VoNC could be triggered at any time by the threshold-reaching letter being sent – and it could be sent over just about anything at just about any time. A serious stumble or just a sense that ‘this can’t go on’ could precipitate an election much earlier.

Either way, the crucial point as far as the betting market is this: the election is overwhelmingly likely to be in the next 18 months. That means that there’s going to be little opportunity for people to rise through the ranks. Anyone currently outside the cabinet who fancies their chance will very probably have to fight from where they are now.

Who ends up winning is also very much influenced by the dynamics of the MPs’ votes, which itself is a factor of the overall field (something even harder, if not impossible, to predict). In particular, the nature of the penultimate round – when three candidates remain – will be crucial. A candidate with a sizable lead will look a clear favourite and will be treated as such by the media and, to an extent, politicians. To give an example, the 2005 election might have looked very different had Clarke beaten Fox for third place in the first vote. In that case, instead of the actual second round scores of

Cameron 90
Davis 57
Fox 51

The scores might have been

Davis 92
Cameron 62
Clarke 44

In that case, the momentum that Cameron had built up to that stage would have come clattering to a halt and Davis would have appeared the clear leader going into the members’ vote.

So this time. The contest, whether it comes before or after March 2019, will be dominated by Brexit, with the core Brexiteers reverting to their referendum rhetoric on one side and the ex-Remain pragmatists looking beyond the need to deliver Brexit to the need to not crash the economy while doing so. Here, ironically, if one wing is the stronger but not substantially so, that ‘divided vote dynamic’ could work against them – a final MPs’ round line-up of, say, Gove, Hunt and Boris could see Hunt hoover up enough transfers from the ex-Remain wing to finish comfortably first. By contrast, a line-up of Rees-Mogg, Rudd and Williamson would likely see the backbencher top the poll.

What then of the possible candidates?

To my mind, Rees-Mogg’s odds are absurdly short; a consequence of people wrong reading the Labour election across to the Tories’. For all the caricatures, the Tory membership is relatively pragmatic. Certainly it has an ideological edge (why else would people join) but it also elected Cameron ahead of David Davis in 2005, and – according to polling – would have backed May ahead of both Boris and Leadsom in 2016. There is no equivalent of the three-pound Corbynite. Similarly, those reading across from Rees-Mogg’s huge support in his bid for the Treasury Select Committee chairmanship, or his election to lead the European Research Group, to support for a full leadership bid are making a mistake. The roles and skills required are very different and MPs – whose jobs are on the line if they mess up a leadership contest – will recognise that. In addition, both his policy stance beyond Brexit and his life away from politics are likely to be limit his chances. It’s far from obvious that he would even stand but if he does, I’d expect him to be knocked out relatively early.

Of the other Brexiteers, Gove and Boris again remain best-placed to run. The shine has come off Boris a little since the referendum – government is hard work and he’s not a natural administrator – but come an election campaign, his star is likely to shine a little more brightly. In truth, it is Boris, not Rees-Mogg, who is closer to being the Tory Corbyn (albeit that Boris’s politics are more flexible). 8/1 (Ladbrokes) is about right.

And if Boris is the heart of Tory Brexit then Gove is the head. Hugely unpopular at Education – though effective in what he wanted to do – some would have that he’s reinvented himself at Justice and then Environment but in truth politicians are rarely easy to neatly pigeonhole as ‘right’ or ‘left’ and Gove is one such. After Theresa May’s problems with Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Gove would likely be required by MPs to sign in blood that he wouldn’t invite Dominic Cummings into Number Ten before being assured of their support. There are plenty of reasons as to why Gove shouldn’t be elected but much the same can be said of the rest of the field (which is why May is where she is); however, no-one else is likely to go into the contest with such comprehensive policies and ideas across the board. The 12/1 Betway are offering is good value.

After those three, two ex-Remainers sit at 16/1. Amber Rudd has been relatively anonymous at the Home Office (though having an ex-Home Secretary as PM was always likely to make that the case), but she did reasonably enough in the general election. Her more vocal support for Remain in 2016 will probably be enough though to ensure her unelectability. By contrast, Jeremy Hunt remained quiet during the referendum and has since, like May, transitioned to backing the Will of the People. Tory leadership elections are often as much about who people are not as who they are and with so many big characters potentially in the race, it’s entirely possible that Hunt could literally come through the middle. The NHS’s capacity problems shouldn’t be a limiting factor: he will have no difficulty blaming the Treasury. His odds should be shorter.

Of those with odds in the 20s, Leadsom (22), and Davis and Davidson (25) should be written off. Leadsom showed her unsuitability last time; Davis is preoccupied with Brexit detail and in any case, his time, such as it was, as a future leader has now passed; while Davidson, not being an MP, isn’t eligible and is highly unlikely to become so.

The other two in that range – Dominic Raab and Gavin Williamson – shouldn’t be written off but I don’t think their odds offer value. The election is likely to come too early for the former, whereas the latter is being just a little too obvious in his actions, which is never well appreciated by colleagues.

Is there any value with the candidates at 33/1 or longer? That is, after all, where any number of future winners have come from, even at this relatively short timeframe. At the risk of looking foolish, I don’t think so. The fact is that the person who would traditionally have been the long-odds outsider is in fact currently favourite. It’s entirely possible that JRM’s prominence could wane rapidly following some badly-judged remark and, were that to happen, some other backbencher could become the new Voice of Pure Brexit. Identifying who that might be though is very much a game of chance – and with likely odds on request of no more than 125/1, not a very attractive one.

For someone to come from so far out, they have to light up the campaign with something new – hard enough in opposition, never mind government. Prior to May, every person for well over a century who became PM mid-term, outside of wartime had served immediately before as Chancellor, Foreign Secretary or the effective deputy PM. Even counting May, and others who didn’t become PM but could plausibly have done, the circle is traditionally confined to the senior roles in cabinet, for two good interrelated reasons. Firstly, that’s where the most effective politicians (however defined) are usually found: PMs are obliged to give big beasts big jobs; and secondly, those who choose the leaders require evidence of the candidates’ suitability, which is again most easily found in the big jobs. (Not that this evidence is fool-proof but it’s the best anyone has to go on). We discard this lengthy precedent at our peril.

The conclusion from all that? As things stand – and quite probably, as they will stand when the election comes, Gove, Hunt and Boris have the best chance of making the final three. If so, Hunt will have a structural advantage in the final MPs’ round but would be then up against someone with more ideas or more charisma in the run-off, which will be close. If were forced to make a prediction at this stage though, I’d have to say that ideas will win out.

David Herdson