Conservative Party Leadership Election

Well its about 10 days since the Referendum result came through. Let me say at the outset it wasn’t the result I wanted. However it was fair and decisive if close. It wasn’t close enough though for any doubt. Obviously I spent some time in stunned disbelief, every instinct told me that the result would ultimately go the other way. However I was wrong and it was a bitter disappointment. We have to move forward though and implement the decision of the British people. However before we get onto that important task the Conservative Party has been thrown into a leadership battle to determine who will be the person charged with that decision.

It was clear that an outcome that went against the recommendation of the government and the Prime Minister would have immediate consequences both politically and economically. The economic consequences will take time to discern although the heavy devaluation of the pound gives a hint, the political consequences however were always going to be immediate. It was pretty obvious that despite campaign assurances to the contrary the Prime Minister would resign in the event of the vote going against him. The simple truth is that despite eleventh hour pleadings from his opponents the PM was never going to survive such a blow to his authority. It is a shame because David Cameron has proven to be a skilled and adept politician and probably the second best Prime Minister in my lifetime. Disappointment again at this turn of events has turned into resolution to move forward.

The leadership contest in the Conservative Party was always going to come in this Parliament. Had things panned out differently I suspect it would have happened at some point in 2018. So in essence the contest is occurring two years early. The outcome of the referendum has also altered the nature of the contest. Had the referendum gone as the government advocated then the PM would have continued, there would undoubtedly have been a reshuffle and in two years the contest would have got under way. It is beyond doubt that one of the contenders would have been the Chancellor George Osborne. Aside from the extraordinary contest in 1995 I cannot think of a leadership change where the serving Chancellor hasn’t featured. That Osborne ruled himself out of this contest is a sign of how the referendum result has upset political certainties and a reflection perhaps of the miscalculations made in the campaign. That is for another blog though.

Since the referendum result turmoil has engulfed the Labour Party with most of the Shadow Cabinet resigning, the Parliamentary Party resoundingly expressing its lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and all manner of mayhem breaking out. The Conservatives have been no less affected but have appeared calmer due to the cataclysm engulfing their opponents. When the PM made his announcement a few things were certain, firstly that Boris would be a contender and that he was the overwhelming favourite. In the hours after the vote he teamed up with Michael Gove another leading Leave campaigner to forge a so-called “dream ticket”. It proved to be the stuff of nightmares for Boris. All was proceeding according to plan when on the morning that nominations closed Gove, eviscerated Boris’ chances by parting from him and standing for the leadership himself. Boris concluded that he was stymied and withdrew.

The contest we are having therefore is not the one we thought we would be having. There are 5 candidates, Theresa May the Home Secretary, Michael Gove the Justice Secretary, Stephen Crabb the Work & Pensions Secretary, Andrea Leadsom junior minister in the Dept for Energy & Climate Change and Liam Fox a backbencher and former Defence Secretary. This is an astonishing line up for a governing party to have for its leadership election. Two of the candidates ought not to be even in the race but this is not a usual contest. In fact there is more than a passing chance that Leadsom could end up winning. This would be a stunning outcome and not one that would bode well for the UK in my opinion.

The reason that previous contests for leadership in the governing party have usually been contested and won by senior members of the Cabinet is that there is a certain level of expertise and experience needed to run government. Ministers of State, no matter how talented, simply do not have the requisite political experience. The point is made that some PM’s reach that position without any prior government experience. This is true, but they usually have a considerable stint as Leader of the Opposition which is an extensive job interview and they have to pass the most exacting employment panel in terms of winning an election. This tends to give them far greater political experience than they would otherwise have. The two things are not realistically comparable.

The issue that faces the Conservatives as they choose their new leader is that that leader will automatically become Prime Minister and be expected to run the country. Choosing someone without the requisite experience would be a colossal gamble and on top of the uncertainty created by the outcome of the EU referendum is likely to not be without consequences. The truth is that very inexperienced opposition leaders can make errors safe in the knowledge that there are few if any national consequences. If a Prime Minister with insufficient experience makes an error, particularly in the climate of upending 40 years of domestic and foreign policy, then the likelihood is a run on the pound. The stakes are far too high to toy with that kind of outcome.

Some in the Conservative Party may look across at the Labour party inferno and consider that it gives licence for experimentation and making an unconventional choice. I think the exact opposite is true. When the opposition is being irresponsible, the government must be more and not less responsible. The Conservatives must take more care, not less, in the choice that they make. The country would not forgive, and would punish condignly a Conservative Party that compounded the consequences of Brexit with the consequences of a wholly inexperienced Prime Minister. Talented as she may be, attractive as she may be, Leadsom simply isn’t the choice of a party that is serious about government.