The Tories need a fresh face as party leader – not someone who has served in the Cabinet
Past and present members of the Cabinet are the only ones being talked up as likely successors to Theresa May. But the party needs a clean break with the past to unite going forward, writes Sebastian Whale.
There are few things more contagious in Westminster than an emerging consensus.
This is most apparent when applied to leadership speculation. A name gets dropped into the conversation and before you know it, betting sites are tweeting out the odds of them becoming Prime Minister before any real scrutiny is applied.
For a brief period, David Lidington was being talked up as a potential caretaker PM when Theresa May steps aside. Far more of an ardent Europhile than May, but just as instinctively cautious, few Brexiteers in the party would stomach a Lidington premiership. As one Tory told me, “we would rather stick with Theresa May”. Popular and respected Lidington may be, but a prospective leader of today’s Conservative party he is not.
If you take the time to analyse the list of apparent hopefuls, questions quickly arise about their viability. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid backed Remain at the referendum and have compensated by being arguably more hawkish on Brexit than most Leavers. On the recent conversion of Hunt, one Brexiteer questioned the legitimacy of someone "who compares the EU to the Soviet Union but campaigned to remain in it". Concerns have also been raised over just how different their pitch would be to the current PM. Rivals have reportedly branded the pair “The Tits” – Theresa in Trousers.
Much like Lidington, Amber Rudd is a non-starter for much of the Tory base for her views on Brexit. Matt Hancock, a former Bank of England economist, has gone about his business effectively but is tied closely with the Cameron/Osborne era and is green compared to others in the mix. Liz Truss is one of the few senior Tories seeking to contextualise Conservatism to the present day. But there are a few gaffes to look back on over the years (such as her claiming barking dogs could deter drones and past conference speeches).
Michael Gove, while one of the few decent orators in the Cabinet, carries with him a divisive legacy dating back to his time as education secretary. Gavin Williamson, who has been nicknamed 'Private Pike', has been undermined as a serious candidate. Andrea Leadsom has found renewed political life as Commons Leader, but memories of the 2016 contest still ring large. Dominic Raab can talk a good game but needs to find out how to speak human. Esther McVey, the former DWP secretary, has accumulated her share of critics from her time in office.
Boris Johnson can whip up a frenzy, but few can split opinion as strongly as the former London mayor. He might ignite the grassroots, but would he get through the parliamentary party? One exception could be Penny Mordaunt, who has wisely kept quiet since the Withdrawal Agreement. Though Brexiteers initially cried foul at her support for the PM’s deal, her stance has been somewhat vindicated in recent weeks.
There’s something more fundamental about some of the characters being talked about. Are they actually any good? They’ve been members of a Cabinet which has been at loggerheads for more than two years, and part of a government that has been branded a "shitshow" by a member of their own side. Why are we thinking they are suddenly going to set the world on fire?
There is talent among the Conservatives, but none of it is really being considered. From the 2015 intake, Tom Tugendhat and Victoria Atkins are two of the standout performers. For contrasting reasons, both would present genuine threats to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
The Cabinet as currently constituted is tied to the current impasse. It’s difficult to see how voters would distinguish any of them from the quagmire we find ourselves in. There is little evidence that experience of this government would serve them any better in the negotiations than someone coming in as a newbie.
Alistair Burt, who resigned as foreign office minister last week, told The House there needs to be a “refresh” of government right across the board when the UK enters the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. Johnny Mercer, a vocal critic of the Government, has also called for a "new generation of political leadership". A fresh face at the top could be the way to draw the line in the sand from this tumultuous period for the Conservative party.