After Boris: the leadership race has begun
The events of recent weeks have irreparably weakened the Prime Minister. The vote of confidence hurt him. Then two by-election losses revealed that people were tactically voting against the Conservatives. A party that tolerated Boris Johnson because he was a vote winner now fears he is an electoral liability. But conservatives are stuck on a fundamental question: what next?
Conservatives are trapped. They are collectively fed up with Johnson and each passing week brings more cause for exasperation. After partygate, his allies repeatedly reassured Tory MPs that the Downing Street operation had been professionalised, that the same mistakes would not happen again. But they did.
There is a scandal, then a false denial of No. 10. Ministers are then sent to repeat the denial, which is (as they say) “just a shameless lie”. One of the cabinet ministers who normally defends Johnson worries that “it will only get worse”. Another complained: “We find it amazing what No 10 wants us to do. These are epic acts of self-harm. An influential Tory MP who voted for Johnson in the no-confidence ballot says, with a mixture of exhaustion and desperation: “Please God, make it stop.”
That sums up the mood. The Conservatives are hoping for some kind of divine intervention because they don’t know what else to do. There remains the question of the mechanism by which Johnson could be impeached. Westminster is obsessed with the issue. If most Tory MPs want Johnson out, they will find a way to get it done, either by changing the 1922 Committee rules to allow another no-confidence vote or by some other means. All they need is a better person with a better plan.
This week, finally, the contours of the next leadership campaign are becoming clearer. According to Conservative Home‘s poll of Tory activists, which has an impressive record in leadership races, Ben Wallace is the new frontrunner. It is a sign of the respect in which Wallace’s leadership over Ukraine is held. An officer in the Scots Guards who also served in the Scottish Parliament, he is considered good in a crisis. With war in Europe and inflation around the world, conservative members expect many crises.
But even the students closest to the Conservative party would have a hard time telling you what Wallace thinks about most national issues. He has been Minister for Northern Ireland, Minister for Security and now Secretary of Defence. He has never held a position in the economic or public services and is not used to giving high-profile speeches, so his views on these issues remain relatively unknown. Those already promoting Wallace tend to be figures whose main interests are military. But what is its strategy for the war against inflation? It’s much less clear.
What would Wallace’s growth strategy be? How would he deal with the NHS backlog? What would he do when faced with the need for remedial education? He can provide answers to such questions in a leadership contest – but for now he is seen as a good party soldier who is unproven in almost every other area. It’s hard to escape the idea that his popularity is linked to Ukraine, one of the few things the government manages to do. This war also means Wallace is unlikely to step down.
The other candidate who will claim foreign policy success is Liz Truss, another grassroots favorite. She comes from the small states liberal wing of the Conservative party and was one of the few ministers to protest tax hikes in the cabinet. Coming into the contest, her supporters will come mostly from that tax-cutting Tory faction of the tribe: privately, she’s clear that she agrees with John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith that growth blocked is a bigger issue than debt or inflation, and his position is that debt-funded tax cuts are the best way to spur growth.
When Truss backed Johnson for leadership in 2019, the first member of Theresa May’s cabinet to do so, he embraced her plan to raise the threshold for the higher income tax rate – but quickly backtracked. It highlighted their differences and highlighted her credentials as a tax cutter. Fine, say her critics, but in all her years in government she never really realized the efficiency gains she so values - and lobbied for a bigger Foreign Office budget and government spending. higher defense.
There may now be a challenger for the Truss tax cut crown: Nadhim Zahawi, the new Chancellor. He said he would reverse the planned corporate tax hike from 19% to 25% and propose income tax cuts. But there will be no attempt to make corresponding cuts in spending. He may well deliver the debt-funded tax cuts that Truss had been dangling, but how they will be sustainable is less clear.
Zahawi supporters are now active in the corridors and dining rooms of Westminster. They make this point: his strength is in being able to keep what he promises. They point to his role in the vaccination program, while he was much more involved in the implementation than a minister normally does. (They also quietly point out the difficulties with the program after he left.) They argue that he would bring vision and skill.
The Schools Bill is a blot on his notebook, however. Zahawi’s department introduced legislation in the Lords which would have destroyed the freedom of the academies had it been enacted. It was quashed by a cross-party revolt by a group of former school ministers. Zahawi has now dropped those clauses, even saying he disagreed with the legislation. What does that say about his grip on his own department?
Perhaps Zahawi’s real strength is his transferability: his ability to garner support from all wings of the Conservative Party as other candidates are eliminated. But that is damaged by his decision to keep Johnson in power. Arriving as a Kurdish immigrant unable to speak English, Zahawi’s story certainly embodies what Michael Howard calls the “British dream”. The same is true for Sajid Javid, whose friends expect him to make a third attempt at leadership – with his record of leading numerous departments and twice stepping down in protest at the government. Johnson’s behavior.
The candidate with the clearest anti-Johnson credentials is Tom Tugendhat – who campaigned vigorously against the prime minister’s candidacy in 2019 and (unlike Javid) has never repented. As a result, he was left on the back benches. He is chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs but has never held a ministerial post. His allies cast him as the “new broom” candidate, popular among young one-nation conservatives. A hawk on Russia and China, he has long advocated for Britain to reduce its dependence on autocracies. In terms of domestic politics, he lambasted tax hikes and policies that might have been introduced by Labour.
After Tugendhat and Wallace comes a third candidate with a military connection: Penny Mordaunt, a naval reservist popular with conservative activists. But it is difficult to see how she could obtain the support of the 120 deputies she would need to be certain of being part of the last two. She’s a socially liberal Brexiteer who once said in the dispatch box that “trans men are men and trans women are women”. This certainly sets it apart from its rivals. However, this is not a view widely shared by Conservative members.
2019 finalist Jeremy Hunt has been waiting for this moment. He can offer a lot of experience as well as distance from the Johnson project, having turned down the job of Secretary of Defense. Many Tories in seats facing the Lib Dem see Hunt as the top candidate, symbolizing a return to a stable Tory government unsullied by the tragedies of recent years. His supporters are well organized and ready to swing behind him. His biggest problem is that members don’t like being asked twice. For too many of them, that would be like saying they got the wrong vote in 2019.
Next comes Rishi Sunak. Sunak struggled with Johnson’s unstructured, no-spend approach for some time. He felt there was a lack of candor and seriousness in Johnson’s approach to the compromises involved, which was emblematic of the way the government was run. Having known Sunak for years, I can say that he is a naturally collegiate soul, but he finally decided that things could not go on like this for the country or the party. He has a vision of how to make the country competitive again – and how to use Brexit to get there. It is likely to run on this platform.
A former cabinet minister who leans towards supporting Sunak says he remains the most eligible Tory despite his recent struggles and is most likely to come up with a cohesive plan to deal with Britain’s growing pains.
Any candidate who wants to be taken seriously would need such a plan. They will also need answers to the problem of the NHS, which will absorb around 44% of daily spending by the next election, with the waiting list rising from six million to nine million. They will have to come up with ideas on how to reduce dependence on China. If conservatives fail to do these things well, the consequences for them could be devastating.
Right now, the most likely outcome of the next election is a hung parliament with an anti-Tory majority. But conservatives should take no comfort: Keir Starmer wouldn’t need a landslide. He would just need enough support to change the first-past-the-post voting system and enfranchise 16-year-olds. If he does, the Conservatives could be out of power for a generation.
The hour is therefore late and the stakes are high for the Conservatives. The question is, will a leadership contest, when it does take place, just be a clash of personalities? Or will he force the candidates to find solutions to the problems plaguing the country? It will be up to the Conservatives, collectively, to see if they can come up with better answers.