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Ruthless People. The Conservatives lose a leadership contender

September 17th, 2018

I have an announcement to make. Sadly I do not foresee circumstances in which I shall be standing to be leader of the Conservative party. This is no doubt a great loss to them, despite my having no ministerial experience, not being an MP or even being a member of the Conservative party. But they will have to struggle on without me.

The bemusement you are, I expect, feeling was not matched when Ruth Davidson similarly ruled herself out. Perhaps it was because she is a member of the Conservative party. After all, she has the other two disqualifiers, just like me. There are 316 MPs more immediately eligible, of whom at least half will have had more governmental experience. Why should her disavowal attract so much attention?

This can be explained partly, of course, by the basis on which she did so. As has been widely acknowledged, she has been incredibly open about her past struggles with mental health, an openness that will help change attitudes to a set of serious problems that are far too little discussed. She may have helped to save lives with her words. Few politicians achieve as much.

Still, the question can’t be dismissed: why is this major news? The answer is simple, and worrying for the Conservative party: they have a serious lack of talent. A charismatic outsider with a winning track record looks much better than most of the alternatives. Theresa May only remains in office because the alternatives look dire. Unsurprisingly, Conservatives are looking to see whether the grass is greener.

Ruth Davidson’s hypothetical candidacy is symptomatic of that bigger problem. Jacob Rees-Mogg, an MP who has not yet climbed as far as unpaid bag-carrier in government, has been among the favourites for next Prime Minister. He too has disavowed leadership ambitions, so far without harming his betting odds very much.

Others have seen the gap in the market. Last week George Freeman, an MP who had previously served in unblemished obscurity, helpfully announced that if called upon he would stand. The nation no doubt is grateful for his sense of duty.

When Theresa May goes, whether sooner or later, she will in all probability be replaced by a candidate with substantial experience at the highest rank, however lacklustre they might otherwise be. The paucity of quality of the field, however, suggests that the Conservatives will be likely to make heavy weather against Labour.

What of Ms Davidson? Having announced that she does not want to be Prime Minister she has benefited from a wave of sympathy from a public that finds a great renunciation a compelling story. It does raise a further awkward question, however: if she is not up to being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, why does she think she is up to being Scotland’s First Minister? She had better have a clear answer.

Alastair Meeks