Never plan a blog post in advance. I’d been working my brain around the whole question of how to judge the odds of there being a Tory leadership contest over the next month. Now my only question is who is it who the final winner is going to be.
This may sound like hindsight, but I think I’d concluded the jig was up last night. It was Tim Montgomerie’s tweet below that did it:
He gets the glory of saying it a day before everyone else is forced to agree, following a crash-and-burn conference speech by Theresa May that put Ed Miliband to shame. You can say that it was the cough sweets; you can say it was the heckler with the P45 stunt; you can say it was the letters falling off the wall behind her mid-way through the speech – but the thing that really doomed Theresa May was the sense of flaccid apathy that appears to have dominated the whole Manchester conference. Her career was over by the time she left the stage; but it was already over before she came on.
I first came into the business of government mid-way during the last days of Blair and the doomed Brown ministry. There was a sense of tiredness that pervaded everything; of staying in government out of habit more than conviction. It’s remarkable how fast this government had sunk to the same level. The more ruthless Tories have sensed this, and unlike Labour under Brown, look set to take action on this.
Had it not been for the speech, this would have been subtle. Key people would have let the Tory conference knowing that something had to be done, and in a week or two the men in grey suits would have given the PM the message that the time had come to leave.
Now, however, the end will be public. Don’t expect the contest to start tomorrow – after something that bad, there will be a reluctance to be the one seen to wield the knife. May herself may have to step down, albeit with the chairman of the 1922 committee standing just out of camera shot.
Oddly enough, that shift may significantly change the nature of the contest. Previously, I would have thought that the prize was most likely to go to the person brave enough to set up the coup. That person (presumably Boris) would have a leadership campaign waiting and ready to go when the word came out. A coronation did not seem off the cards.
But with the vacancy at Number 10 so obviously posted, the political environment becomes very different. May isn’t fighting for her life – she’s bequeathing her support to an heir. Not only that, but the fact that her end was so abject and piteous actually reflects back badly on those who went to the trouble of sticking in the knife.
That’s bad for Boris. If the end of May is seen as having been about bad luck and betrayal, it taints everyone who worked to bring it about. Conversely, those who stuck through to the end look like good soldiers. Perhaps the moment in the speech that counts most was when Amber Rudd was caught on camera ordering Boris to stand up and support May with an ovation, so the PM could scarf another throat pastille and keep going for longer. Now the end has passed, those who stuck around till now are in a strong position.
When the contest does come, it’s Boris vs Stop Boris in the first instance; with the role of Stop Boris probably being played by Amber Rudd. I’d assume that Boris implodes for having brought about such a dreadful end to May and generally being a loose cannon, and the hard Brexit wing of the party passes its support over to another Brexiteer.
Whoever this would be would be my most likely winner of the contest overall, but it’s hard to figure out who picks up the crown. Maybe not David Davis given his poor performance as Brexit negotiator and association with the election disaster. Rees-Mogg can be guaranteed to win the votes of the membership, but is probably kept off the ballot by MPs because he is guaranteed to lose the next election.
Gove might do it, but I see him as more of a kingmaker (Rudd’s best chance would come from getting him on her team). If I was a betting man, I’d be checking the odds for Priti Patel, should she put her name forward – she had a good conference and the least male, pale and stale candidate the Tories are going to find. That could work well just now, if you set aside the fact that she’s got all the diplomatic skills of the Spanish national police.
But this is all politics. The question we should be asking is who should the Tories be looking for right now? But then, would you expect a civil servant to answer that…?