James Kirkup

Who will be the next Tory leader? | 21 July 2017

Who will be the next Tory leader? | 21 July 2017
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Summer is finally here. Tory MPs, exhausted, relieved and nervous, can retreat to contemplation. One theory says that distance from Westminster will break the magic spell that holds Theresa May aloft: they’ll go away and realise that stumbling and mumbling into full-blown Brexit is just impossible, then come back in September and put an end to her. Some are citing the IDS precedent, when summer thoughts turned to autumn deeds.

But there’s a difference. Then, the party could agree on Michael Howard. Today, there is no Michael Howard figure: David Davis, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond are all divisive and becoming more so: none has impressed colleagues in recent days; anger at their perceived antics means the share prices of the Big Three are all at historic lows, I reckon. To continue the market allegory, that’s meant a May rally based on a grim flight to quality. Even the lame Mrs May strikes a fair few MPs as a safer bet than the chaos that might follow an autumn regicide.

In other words, the PM is lucky in her enemies, if nothing else: the various flaws of her would-be successors are doing more to secure May in No 10 than anything she or her team have done since the election. In fact, there is a Michael Howard figure in today’s Conservative Party. Her name is Theresa May. Remember, she got the job by not engaging in the stupidity of which the Big Three now stand accused. She may yet keep it in the same manner.

So what next? Painful as it will be, there is a perfectly good chance that May stumbles on to the other side of the Article 50 process, whereupon the party decides to skip a generation and picks a leader from outside the current Cabinet. After all, that leader will be the person the party will be proposing to the country as its prospective Prime Minister until 2027. That timetable alone argues for new blood, never mind the quality of the candidates.

Among those subject to such speculation, Ruth Davidson and Tom Tugendhat both look like good value bets today. Both can offer a fresh face and outsider credentials (Davidson in Scotland, Tugendhat in the British Army) and both can probably claim to have more experience of leadership than David Cameron when he entered No 10 in the teeth of a fiscal storm. James Cleverly also gets talked about, with reason: he spoke at a Social Market Foundation event on university drop-out rates this week, and impressed many there by talking about a real issue like a real person.

(Tom Newton Dunn of Her Majesty’s Sun newspaper this week also threw another mysterious 2015 intake name into the ring, tweeting that he had lunched a future leader but declining to identify the MP. I would never dream of violating the sanctity of a former Lobby colleague's luncheons. But I am duty-bound to report that the talk in the tearooms after Tom's tweet was about Nigel Huddleston. I don’t know Mr Huddleston, but I suspect his inbox will get a lot busier in the coming days. Likewise his ranking at Google – where he used to work – thanks to journalists and lobbyists furiously looking him up.)


Of course, the course of events that puts a Next Generation Tory in No 10 could be awful beyond word. A bad Brexit process delivered by a weak Tory PM could doom the party at the next election and beyond. Some of the smartest people I know in London and Brussels alike are likening this to the British summer of 1913, the unreal calm before the brutally real storm.

Unless they arrive with some pretty serious new thinking about politics and economics, the next generation of Tories could inherit a graveyard.

And of course, things could well work out very differently. The sequence of events I’ve described above would mean that men like DD and Boris now have nothing to lose, no reason beyond commitment to party and country (and perhaps, to family) not to launch an utterly disruptive assassination bid in the autumn. Beware old men in a hurry.

Put it another way: Mrs May’s premiership and the fragile stability of Britain’s government now hang on the threads of Boris Johnson’s selflessness and David Davis’ modesty. Have a relaxing summer contemplating that. Autumn will be here sooner than you think.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

Topics in this articlePolitics