At last the remaining candidates for the leadership of the Conservative...
Theresa May’s resignation has triggered an election process for selecting her successor. That began this week and will take the best part of six weeks. Candidates had to be sitting MPs who had the support of at least eight other MPs. Ten achieved this requirement on 10thJune and they will be whittled down to a final two candidates in a series of secret ballots on 18th,19thand 20thJune. The final two names will be put to the party membership from 22nd June and the winner will be announced four weeks later.
In the first stage the support of MPs is crucial and three of the candidates - Johnson, Gove and Hunt - are well ahead of the rest, but that doesn’t mean that they will remain so. Boris Johnson has the most backers but also the most vociferous critics. Writing in the Times, Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP, described Johnson as “a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist’s ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory.” (Times, 10 June 20). Others back Johnson because they see him as the candidate most able to see off the challenge of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party.
Michael Gove was seen by some as Johnson’s strongest challenger. He is seen as a competent minister who has been doing well as Environment Secretary. But last weekend he confessed to having used cocaine 20 years ago. Cocaine is a Class A drug and using it is a criminal offence. Will this lose him support? If it does the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt could be a beneficiary. He has pitched himself as ‘the serious leader’; he was the longest serving Health Secretary and has negotiated peace talks in Yemen. He has the support of Cabinet colleagues Penny Mordant and Amber Rudd, who leads the moderates in the parliamentary party.
Dominic Raab and Esther McVey are hard line Brexiteers who favour a no-deal Brexit despite the fact that MPs have twice voted against that. They have both damaged their cause by saying that they would prorogue Parliament so MPs couldn’t do that again. Only the Queen can prorogue Parliament and such a move risks involving Her Majesty in party politics; most of the other candidates have attacked this tactic as unconstitutional and undemocratic. The Speaker has also dismissed it as a possibility.
None of the other candidates would appear to have strong support amongst their fellow MPs, but Rory Stewart has come first in a public opinion poll. He has only just reached Cabinet level as Secretary of State for International Development and has a refreshingly different style to the other candidates.
One disturbing issue has been the way in which the candidates have begun to propose the extravagant spending commitments that they would introduce if chosen. Gove proposes abolishing VAT and replacing it with a sales tax. Johnson wants to cut income tax for those earning £50,000 whilst doing nothing for the poorest. Raab wants a 5p cut in income tax whilst Sajid Javid has proposed a £25 billion spending spree and Hunt is promising to build 1.5 million new homes, cut the interest rate on student loans an increase the defence budget. He and Johnson both support cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2050, which could cost £1 trillion. Whatever the merits of any of these proposals, how they would fit into any responsible economic policy needs careful analysis.
The Conservatives chose a new leader in 2016 who hasn’t commanded authority in the party or the nation. The fear some have is that they will do the same again this year. The Parliamentary party is deeply divided and the new leader will need great skill to hold it together and find a solution to the Brexit conundrum. We are due to leave the EU by 31st October so party politics aside, we need a stable Government that can handle this.