Old masters

You can’t get ahead of the news these days. No matter how fast you try and think ahead, events prove you a fool. Today’s Evening Standard set out the Tory leadership landscape in the morning. By the time they went to press, Andrea Leadsom had thrown in the towel, and by the time their papers were on the stands Theresa May was about an hour away from being declared leader of the Conservative Party. Why bother killing trees when the news changes this fast?

But presumably the newsmakers have to sleep, and eat, and do the occasional bit of ironing. And that gives a chance to try and get a few hours ahead of the news. With that in mind, some Cabinet predictions that May or May not play out.

U.K. Chancellor George Osborne Launches National Loan Guarantee Scheme
Were you expecting someone … different?

#1 Osborne for Foreign Secretary. Not long ago, Osborne was political dead meat. But, much like a comic-book supervillain, his demise may only be temporary.

I’ve long fancied George to be the kingmaker of a Tory leadership race, rather than a PM in waiting. His open endorsement was something to be actively avoided, given his popularity with one wing of the party; but George doesn’t need to be that obvious. I first got a hint something was up mid-way through the first week of the contest, when Patrick McLoughlin and Michael Fallon very visibly came out for May. McLouglin in particular has very strong links with Osborne, without the toxic image. I don’t think you get the kind of majorities that May was getting amongst MPs without having George there making it possible.

Everyone knows that he can’t stay on as chancellor, including him. So since referendum day he has been clocking up the air-miles, trying to prepare the ground for a new trade deal with every nation in the developed world. He couldn’t be more transparent in saying ‘pick me, pick me’ for this job, and I suspect he’s already got it on a promise.

#2 Chris Grayling for Home Secretary. I didn’t see this coming, but Chris Grayling has made himself into a valuable politician. Traditionally, he’s been one of the barnacles attached to the Cameron cabinet – not quite troublesome enough to be worth scraping off; not nearly useful enough to be worth bringing on.

chris-grayling_2733609bBut now, as May’s campaign manager, he has surprised me. A vital Leave endorsement, he now ticks the right boxes to be promoted to something big. Unless he takes on a Francis Maude / Oliver Letwin style role as a powerful internal functionary, I think he’s destined for one of the great offices of state. With foreign secretary taken care of, and without the necessary brain power for Chancellor, and with a reputation for hanging, flogging and shooting at Justice, he’ll be a good grassroots-pleasing choice.

This assumes that May doesn’t want to give Home Secretary of Leadsom as a way of genuinely ending her career. I think that feels gratuitous and unkind, given recent circumstances.

2738#3 Michael Gove for Exit Negotiator. May is weak on her Brexit credentials. She needs a big-hitter from Leave to make her commitment credible. Trouble is, there aren’t many big hitters from Leave left. Boris has self-destructed; Leadsom couldn’t last a weekend’s campaigning, let alone two years of brinksmanship; and almost every other brexiteer is too junior to count. That leaves Michael Gove as the only person left.

I may have this wrong. It could be that a relative unknown could be elevated to command. It would be better for Britain if we had someone with less baggage. It’s just possible a left-field choice like William Hague might be able to sneak in. But I think this is the one choice that can really jeopardise the relationship with the membership.

#4 A N Other for Chancellor. Normally, you start building a cabinet from the Chancellor. This time, this is the hardest one to guess. No one candidate stands out, and May isn’t sufficiently beholden to anyone to have to give it as a reward. You can’t keep Osborne; you can’t trust Gove; and Leadsom is reportedly held in contempt by Treasury officials from her time there as a junior minister. What are your options?

This is Philip Hammond’s actual photo

The safe choice is Philip Hammond, our invisible Foreign Secretary. He has a forensic mind for numbers and detail, and also lacks the charisma to be any serious political threat. But he’s also seen as being heavily pro-Remain, which might be a weakness. If another female face was needed (which, admittedly, doesn’t feel like May’s style) then Justine Greening was the other person who nominated her for the leadership. I think Justine is a far more logical choice for Education or DWP, though. Sajid Javid might be a contender, though the asleep-before-it-started Crabb-Javid campaign leaves him looking a lot less credible than before.

The lack of obvious alternatives makes me call it for Hammond; but Hammond himself is so politically expendable that he could easily be a casualty of the next 48 hours.

Not making the top rank

  • Andrea Leadsom: If she’d held out for the campaign, she’d have been a cert for high office. As things stand, she’ll get a mid-ranking ministry – if she’s lucky BIS; if she’s less lucky, something like Justice. Anything more is May being charitable to avoid blowback for being elected unopposed.
  • Stephen Crabb: The man who threw a party and no one came. He’ll be saved by his working class roots, but won’t go up by much I suspect. See also Sajid Javid – both now confirmed as political second raters.
  • Robert Halfon: ‘Who?’ you might ask. I’ll come back to him shortly.
  • Nicky Morgan: Backed the wrong horse. Could have been Chancellor under Gove. Probably moved out of education
  • Jeremy Hunt: Heaven knows what he was blackmailing Cameron with, but he’s not doing it any more. And with the Junior Doctors’ contract imposed, his work is done.
  • Boris Johnson: A man without a future. Would be lucky to be junior minister for unmatched socks. Likely to be in the Lords before 2020.