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The favourite always wins the Tory leadership race – eventually

June 17th, 2019

It’s all about the timing

Conventional wisdom has it that the favourite never wins Tory leadership races. In one sense, this is probably true. I don’t have the historic figures but before every leadership election since the Party moved away from the old Magic Circle method of leaders ‘emerging’, there’s a good case that the person who emerged the winner was not the one seen as most likely to succeed in the period before the election was called.

However, that rule only holds good for so long and in truth, it’s not really a rule at all; more a guideline. Several elections could easily have developed differently, to the favourite’s advantage, but for chance and happenstance. Heseltine would probably have won in 1990 had Thatcher contested the second round (indeed, that’s precisely why she didn’t), or would have done so in 1992 had Howe not resigned when he did, for example.

But while the long-term favourite might have no record of coming out the winner, that’s not the case once the election is underway, as this one is now. Once you move past that mark, favourites have a much stronger record.

Even ignoring the unusual cases of 1989 and 1995, and of 1965 (which required only one round), Thatcher in 1975 and May in 2016 were clear favourites to win after the first round, and went on to do so. There is absolutely no reason based on precedent to believe that Boris won’t follow in their footsteps.

On the contrary, precedent – as well as common sense – suggests that he’s well-set to stroll over the line. The smallest share of the vote that any winner received in any round was the 23.5% support that Duncan Smith won in the first round of the 2001 contest. If anyone other than Boris is to take the crown this time, they will do so having polled little more than half that, as best: Jeremy Hunt, who finished runner-up last Thursday, secured the support of only 13.7% of his colleagues.

By contrast, Johnson appears to be continuing to gain support and if Raab is knocked out before the round-of-three, is likely to be backed by more than half the Conservative parliamentary party before the vote goes to the members: a formidable campaigning asset his team will no doubt play up, even before considering that such polling of Tory members as there has been suggests they both like and trust Boris (despite copious evidence as to why they shouldn’t).

Boris could screw it up but the overwhelming likelihood is that he won’t. I don’t expect any new (large) skeletons to fall out of his closet given how the best that those who would like to discredit him can do is to recycle old ones, and as the firmest Brexiteer on the ballot-paper once Raab is knocked out, would stand a strong chance on that fact alone, even before his other electoral assets.

In short, this will be the election that puts paid to a rule that should never have been taken too seriously in the first place.

David Herdson