George Parker: Boris leads a crowded field as another Tory PM is destroyed by Europe
As Theresa May becomes the latest leader of her party to be taken down by the Europe question, the jostling for the Tory leadership will now move out into the open, writes George Parker
In the end, Theresa May could not resist the pressure of party or political events: her decision to call time on her premiership heralds a chaotic summer for the Conservatives and the country, but there was something inevitable about it. Another Tory prime minister destroyed by Europe.
Mrs May’s decision to set out a timetable for her departure after making one last attempt to ratify her Brexit deal was forced out of her by Sir Graham Brady and the Tory 1922 executive at an hour-long meeting, but the prime minister really had no choice.
She faced a daunting few weeks which would have tested the position of any prime minister, let alone one whose party’s poll ratings are in free-fall and whose authority over the cabinet and MPs disappeared some time ago.
European elections on May 23 and the Peterborough by-election on June 6 both look like disasters waiting to happen for the Conservatives. The prospects of a lame-duck prime minister securing Brexit now look next to zero. But June 15 appeared to the most ominous date of all.
That was when 800 of the highest-ranking activists in the National Conservative Convention – the “parliament” of the voluntary party – were scheduled to hold an unprecedented no confidence vote in the prime minister. For Mrs May it would have been a humiliation too far.
“Those are her people,” said one Tory MP, remarking how Mrs May had grown up in the party and still likes to spend her Saturdays handing out leaflets with local activists in Maidenhead.
Philip May, her husband, also has the party ingrained in him: reports suggested he believed the prime minister should bow out rather than face the indignity of being rejected by the grassroots.
Mrs May also knew that if the NCC passed a non-binding vote of no confidence in her, the following week the executive of the 1922 would probably have changed the party rules to allow MPs to formally throw her out. In short, her time was up.
Which of course means that a new Tory leader and prime minister will be in place by the time the Tories meet for their party conference in September: the jostling for the leadership which has been going on for months will now move out into the open.
Boris Johnson leads a field which – with almost 20 contenders and counting – resembles the start of the Grand National. Mr Johnson has disappeared from public view in recent weeks, during which time his standing has risen. “The less you see of him, the more popular he is,” says one person involved in a rival campaign.
Given that the Conservatives will be on their knees by the time they choose a new leader and facing a serious threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, the appeal of Boris is unmistakeable. “He has that spark of brilliance, he can lift the party,” says one former cabinet minister.
Another former minister says of the current foreign secretary: “Jeremy Hunt is like a Volvo, you know you’ll get home safely, but Boris is like a powerful motorbike. It’s exciting but you know it’s dangerous.” This senior Tory MP is still unsure what mode of transport he would prefer.
Some Tories want Mrs May gone quickly so that the party can choose a leader before the summer break. “The official leadership contest needs to start straight away with the prime minister stepping down immediately,” said Dinah Glover, one of the organisers of the June activists’ meeting.
But Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman, is expected to let the contest run through August and September, having told colleagues that eight or nine weeks is the minimum period of time needed to allow hustings to take place across the country.
There is another calculation for those Tories who want to play the contest long: “The more time we give it, the more chance there is that Boris will blow it up,” says one minister, with a mischievous smile.
George Parker is the Political Editor of the Financial Times