Next leader of the Conservative party

There has been much talk in the last couple of weeks about who could replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative party, and whether this might happen shortly after Brexit has been ‘delivered’.

However, under the current Conservative party leadership rules, leaders who see off an official challenge – as May did in December 2018 – cannot be subject to another challenge for a further year. The only exceptions to this are death or resignation, neither of which seems likely.

Assuming for a moment though that May does resign, who will replace her? There are two possibilities for how a leadership contest could pan out.

One candidate stands: If there is only one candidate, they are elected automatically. This happened with Michael Howard in 2003.

Multiple candidates stand: In the event of two or more candidates being put forward, Conservative MPs will vote in a series of secret ballots, with the candidate with the fewest votes at the end of each round being eliminated. The two remaining candidates are put to a ballot of the Conservative party membership.

Often candidates will withdraw after the early rounds of voting, even if they secured sufficient votes to proceed to the next round, possibly to avoid defeat or to get behind whoever is likely to win. This can result in the number of candidates being reduced to one before members get a vote, and indeed is how Theresa May was elected. The nature of the contest also means that in most cases a contender for the leadership must enjoy support amongst MPs and the wider membership, and be prepared to either present themselves as a compromise candidate or someone who can effectively block a less-popular alternative.

As for the possible candidates, well they are hardly an inspiring bunch. In theory any MP can stand for the leadership, and as far as I can tell they only require a proposer and a seconder – unlike other parties where a minimum percentage of MPs must nominate a candidate. In practice however I think the following MPs are potential candidates, based either on what they have said recently or their nomination in previous elections.

Liam Fox: Has stood in the two previous elections, but on both occasions was eliminated early on and does not appear to be a ‘second choice’ for many MPs. His inability to secure trade deals in advance of Brexit may also damage his reputation.

Boris Johnson: Consistently tipped for the leadership for many years, but has yet to officially throw his hat into the ring – in the 2016 contest he backed out before polling began. Johnson is popular with party members, and generally enjoys a high profile in the media, but his gaffes over the years appear to have earned him some powerful enemies within MPs. If he gets down to the final two he will probably win, but many MPs may choose to vote for another candidate purely to ‘block Boris’.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: A hard-line Brexiteer, Rees-Mogg appears to be popular with the membership, but I don’t think MPs would consider his election to be in the best interests of the party, which has to appeal to the country as well as members. In particular, he would be wide open to attack on a range of progressive issues, such as same-sex marriage, and could end up consigning the party to a series of electoral defeats similar to those suffered in the 2000s.

Andrea Leadsom: A contender in the 2016 contest who was in line to go on the final ballot against May, until she made some appalling comments about being better placed as leader and PM due to having children (contrasting with May who is childless). She was also a long way behind May in terms of votes from MPs, and it’s not clear whether she has done sufficiently well in the meantime to mitigate that.

Michael Gove: A bit of an enigma, Gove has over the course of his career managed to anger and frustrate the teaching profession (a foolish move given how many teachers there are in the country), whilst winning some plaudits for his work as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He performed poorly in the previous leadership election, managing to lose votes in a later round – which suggests some MPs may have backed him initially to keep someone else out and then switched their votes in future rounds.

Stephen Crabb: Although a candidate in the previous election, he had to withdraw after some embarrassing revelations surrounding his personal life. He has kept his head down since, and with a constituency majority of 314 he may wish to concentrate more on his re-election prospects.

David Davis: An early favourite in the 2005 election, who was just ahead of Cameron in the first ballot, making it through to the final two before being crushed 2:1 in the membership vote. His utterly inept performance as ‘minister for Brexit’ will surely count against him, and his record on progressive issues is a mixed-bag (positive on some aspects of civil liberties, negative on abortion and same-sex marriage).

Philip Hammond: I don’t know if the current Chancellor has any desire to become leader of the party, but I suspect he is too sensible to sip from the poisoned chalice at this moment in time.

Overall, I’m struggling to see anyone who could take up the reigns of the leadership and give the party the modernisation it desperately needs to make it relevant to anyone under 50. Eventually it is going to suffer as its core supporters pass on and the next generation remembers a decade or more of austerity.

One thing to watch out for is whether members get a vote, and if so which two candidates make it onto their ballot paper. The members have a mixed record when it comes to selecting leaders, with previous choices being Iain Duncan-Smith (utterly useless but with views in line with the membership) and David Cameron (a reasonable claim to be ‘heir to Blair’, until he messed things up with the EU referendum).

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