There have been two recent kinds of contested Conservative leadership election – those concerned with Tory electability, such as that of 2005, and those focused on the EU question, such as that of 2001 (and up to a point of 2016). This one will be almost entirely an EU-related contest at the membership stage. Brexit encompasses all. This is bad news if you are Bright Blue, Freer, Onward – indeed, almost anyone who wants a deeper and wider debate, particularly about economic policy. From this point of view, the contest will miss Liz Truss who, whether one agrees with her libertarian take or not, has a clearly-defined domestic policy agenda.
At the Parliamentary stage, however, matters are different. What counts most for the majority of Tory MPs isn’t Brexit (though many have passionate takes on it) as who is best placed to win an election – and see off what is now an existential threat to the Conservatives’ role as one of the two natural parties of government. We believe our guide to how Tory MPs will vote is very useful, but only a third of the Parliamentary Party is declared so far. The main contenders are deliberately releasing supporters’ names slowly in order to create a sense of progress and momentum.
If you are Boris Johnson, this means that you are cast as favourite because of polls and surveys that show you to be the choice of Party members – as our own survey consistently has recently. None the less, with relatively few Conservative MPs declared and with the figures showing no clear lead for anyone, he cannot be at all sure of making the final two. Johnson is none the less fighting a classic front-runner’s campaign: in other words, trying to take as few risks as possible, other than his dalliance with Donald Trump. If he can get before the members, he is set to win. But he can’t be sure of doing so.
If you are Jeremy Hunt, you are the reverse kind of front-runner. The Foreign Secretary’s strength in this election is at the Parliamentary stage, not the membership one. He is the most experienced of the Big Five leading candidates, having served in the Commons since 2005, for nearly all that time on the front bench. His natural constituency is the centre-left of the Party, who have no anti-Brexit, pro-revocation, pro-second referendum candidate to vote for. That he has shifted his position on leaving the EU over time may not do him too much harm with that group – but all interests and factions will be monitoring him very closely for backsliding (as each of them sees it).
If you are Dominic Raab, you have neither Johnson nor Hunt’s advantages. You must therefore shout loudly, so to speak, in order to be heard. In Raab’s case, this means making policy announcements. That means opening oneself up to the kind of criticism of such an approach made by Rachel Wolf on this site yesterday – though she was targeting no particular candidate. And his overall policy take is, very crudely, further to the right than Johnson’s, at least on tax, spending and the size of the state. This leaves him a target for the Party’s left – and the Left itself.
If you are Sajid Javid, you will fight, like Raab, an orthodox campaign – complete with a formal launch, backers, a team, fundraising, and announcements. Unlike him, however, you are a Minister: indeed, a holder of one of the great offices of state. This means that you are tied more closely to the Government and are less well -laced to distance yourself from its mistakes. You will therefore tend, at least at the start, to mind your own turf – as the Home Secretary has done with his proposed police numbers policy. He could credibly return to make some of the economic arguments that he put in the 2016 contest.
If you are Rory Stewart, you too can make policy announcements – such as his plan to rework overseas aid for environmental purposes – but they may well get lost in the wash. So you must do something different. The International Development Secretary has risen to the challenge. His Twitter-friendly raids into Kew Gardens, Wigan and Barking are a kind of electoral equivalent of his tramps through Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are unmissable, dotty, engaging, authentic – and unlikely to gain him much support among his fellow MPs. Stewart is a Tory to his fingertips. But with the Party as with his travels, there is a sense that he is somehow a visitor – passing through.
If you are Matt Hancock, you are one of the Government’s best-performing Ministers who, though relatively new in Cabinet, has decided to have a shot at the top job. You therefore start behind Hunt and Michael Gove, who are your natural competitors for the Conservative centre-left vote. Your bid is thus bound to be seen, given your Treasury background, as a tilt for Number 11, not Number 10. Either way, Hancock’s consciously modernising candidacy looks like a continuation of the Cameron and Osborne project. His deliberate attack on Johnson – “I say f**k f**k business – shows that, whatever he may be pitching for, it isn’t the votes of the harder Brexiteers.
If you are almost anyone else, whether a declared candidate (James Cleverly, Andrea Leadsom, Kit Malthouse and now Mark Harper) or a possible runner (Penny Mordaunt, Steve Baker, Priti Patel, and so on), you will have difficulty in cutting through. That leaves Michael Gove. Like Johnson, he has his upsides as well as his downsides as a candidate. Being a journalist arguably suggests both, but in these early stages his media-savviness is paying off. Gove is the master of announcements, and his policy on EU nationals – crafted to appeal to liberal Leavers, Remainers and Softer Brexiteers – has perfect pitch in terms of the coalition he is trying to build for his candidacy.
His numbers are no better and no worse than any other of the leading candidates; his team is no less good; he is more likely to go on the front foot on the Today programme, less likely to blunder in an interview. And he is both tactically fleet and strategically aware. He has cast aside the self-denying ordinance, real or assumed or somehow both, that barred him from leadership elections. His candidacy raises big questions about trust, risk, electoral viability and whether he will fall between too many stools. But if there is a winner of this first week in the contest that has already started, it’s him.