Boris being Boris, he has managed to rule something out without actually ruling anything out at all. As Isabel noted this morning, the Mayor of London has said he will not stand for Parliament before 2015, and will remain in City Hall as promised until 2016. Which is not the same as ruling out standing in the 2015 election.
The latest Boris v Osborne twists have allowed speculation about a post-Cameron age to rise to the surface again, and having spoken to Tory MPs over the last few weeks, it is obvious that said speculation is never far from their lips. 2015 is still a white-knuckle fight, but that’s not to say plans are not afoot were it all to go very wrong for the PM.
‘There is no vacancy, but when the starting pistol is eventually fired I suspect Boris will be a contender along with up to ten other candidates,’ Mark Pritchard, the backbench troublemaker from The Wrekin tells me. ‘There will be a long list to choose from’. Pritchard caused a stir over the weekend when he tweeted:
Inside and outside of Parliament people are fed up of Old Etonians thinking they can pass on No10 like some sort of play thing or baton
— Mark Pritchard (@MPritchardMP) March 2, 2014
And he’s not wrong. Just as when Alec Douglas-Home left No.10, there are those wondering whether an OE will ever cross the threshold of Downing Street again. It took 51 years last time, and given the flak that Cameron and his camp have got for their background, I would not be surprised if the Tories dodged that particular problem for another half century. It shouldn’t be forgotten either that Boris is not as universally loved by backbenchers as he is by the wider party. So what are the other names doing the rounds?
Those who are not in the Chancellor’s camp feel that George Osborne would likely go down with the Cameron ship, along with Grant Shapps who expressed an interest in the top job in a recent interview. This would leave Gove free to run – the Education Secretary has reportedly made it clear that he would not stand against the Chancellor. But if Osborne, lashed to the Cameroon mast, was out of the way, who knows what might happen there.
Theresa May has been naughty before, straying wildly off her brief, and No.10 are acutely aware of her ambitions. Team May have wound their necks in of late but her one-on-one sessions with backbenchers have not gone unnoticed. A female leader would, however, solve accusations of the Tories having ‘a woman problem’ in one very swift stroke.
Philip Hammond is another name at cabinet level that gets mentioned, but he’s hardly one to set the world alight. Nor is Owen Paterson, who was often seen as a beacon of the right when he was at the Northern Ireland Office. While his Euro and climate scepticism is music to the ears of a certain section of the party, he was not performing particularly well in his latest job (think badgers and flooding) even before ill health forced him to take things easy.
You have to chuckle at the emergence of Chris Grayling as a wannabe contender. If Tory associations are looking for a speaker for the rubber chicken circuit, I would advise calling the Justice Secretary, who’d be there like a greyhound. He’s going to face an uphill struggle to the top though, as one May supporter said over the weekend: ‘We’ve never had problems with a bald, right-wing headbanger leading the party before, have we?’
And what about a complete generational shift? There are plenty in the 2010 intake who fancy their chances – be they delusional or otherwise. Just how far will the rivalry between Liz Truss and Matthew Hancock push these two? And Priti Patel is seen by many on the right as their dream candidate. A strong, ideologically sound woman from an ethnic minority background, Patel has the appeal of a broad church candidate, but some of her colleagues are feeling very let down due to her overnight transformation into an uber-loyalist since being offered a role on the No.10 policy unit.
One name that keeps being mentioned to me as one to watch is Dr Philip Lee. The good doctor has been busy wooing colleagues recently, and ever so helpful friends of his have whispered of his ambition to throw his hat into the ring should the vacancy arise after the next election. If I were a betting man I would put my money on Sajid Javid. The loyal Osbornite is highly tipped from high. But then, of course, there is no vacancy.