Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
The Jubilee was wonderful, but it’s time to start planning for the succession. No, not our next monarch, for whom arrangements are in hand, but the more pressing matter of our next Prime Minister.
We can’t assume that today’s vote of no confidence means the end of Boris Johnson, but clearly the party must be prepared for a leadership contest. Furthermore, in the absence of an heir apparent, there’ll be no foregone conclusion to the race, let alone a coronation.
Furthermore, it would be the third time since 2010 that the party has chosen a new Prime Minister for the country — so, if it comes to it, we’d better be sure what we’re doing. The voters are in an unforgiving mood right now — and certainly won’t forgive us if we pick a dud. So whether or not you want to bin Boris, it’s important that we give his replacement some serious thought.
But how? Right now, the field of possible candidates is wide open. With no clear front runner, there are — according to the bookies — at least ten candidates in with a significant chance. Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat, Penny Mordaunt, Ben Wallace, Rishi Sunak, Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab: I wouldn’t bet my house against any of them.
Choosing on the basis of personality isn’t much help. Most of those mentioned above do have one, but not the stand-out charisma that Johnson brought the fight in 2019. Ideological criteria won’t be of much use either; I’d expect every candidate to toss some red meat to the right of the party while also signalling their acceptability to Red Wall voters in the North and to Liberal Democrat leaners in the South.
Instead of a test of personality or ideology, what we need is a test of seriousness. Each candidate should be asked a series of questions that require properly thought-out answers, not sound bites. After all, if it’s just bluster and balderdash that we want, we’ve already got the master-of-the-art in situ. There’s no point in swapping him for someone else unless the substitute can offer substance in place of stardust.
There are hundreds of questions that could be asked, but here are five to get the ball rolling:
How will you reform the Downing Street operation?
Though the detritus of Partygate forms the most recent layer, the mess at the heart of government has accumulated over decades — not just the tenure of the current inhabitant. Unless a new broom can put this house in order, then how can we trust him or her to make a difference in the wider world?
My advice would be to get government out of Downing Street altogether — and establish a professional operation elsewhere in Whitehall. But I’d love to know if the leadership candidates have other plans. Any or all ideas for cutting through the chaos are worth listening to.
On the other hand, a preference for the dysfunctional status quo would instantly mark out a candidate as undeserving of further consideration. But at least that would save time.
What is a woman?
Yes, I know I said no ideological tests. However, this question is about observable reality not ideology. If a candidate can’t reply with the words “adult human female”, then I want to know why.
I’m prepared to respect — if not agree with — candidates who can set-out a logically coherent alternative view on this issue. But, again, there’s time to be saved here if a would-be-leader of the Conservative Party has nothing but nonsense or evasion to offer.
Will you maintain the UK’s support for Ukraine?
The greatest irony of Brexit is that when “European values” truly came under attack, the leader who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t Emmanuel Macron or Olaf Scholz, but Boris Johnson.
If the latter is forced out, then the most urgent question for the world is whether a new PM would maintain, strengthen or weaken British support for Ukraine. Looking at the current field of possible candidates, there’s scope for all three outcomes — and that could have an impact not just on the UK’s position, but that of the West as a whole.
Foreign policy issues rarely make much impact on Tory leadership contests, but this one should be an exception. Beyond the warm words and empty platitudes which the French and Germans indulge in, each of the leadership candidates would need to tell us exactly where they stand on the most important European conflict since the Second World War.
What explains Britain’s terrible record on productivity?
I fear that any debate on economic policy would degenerate into an auction of tax cut promises. Then again, spending promises might predominate instead — especially on measures to tackle the cost of living crisis.
Either way, we need to remember that tax cuts and spending sprees ultimately have to be paid for — and, for that, we need economic growth. So in the event of a leadership contest, what I’d really want to hear from the candidates is an explanation for why UK growth has been so slow for so long.
In particular, I’d like them to explain why Britain’s productivity collapsed after the financial meltdown of 2008 — and why it’s never properly recovered. Of course, it may be that they have no thoughts on this matter at all, in which case we’ll know we have an economic illiterate on our hands.
Are your proposals for solving the housing crisis substantially different from what’s been tried so far?
Any Conservative leadership contest is about the future of the Conservative Party — but without a solution to the housing crisis we don’t have one.
You only have to look at party support by age group to see what’s heading our way if we fail to make the dream of home ownership a reality for Generation Rent. This problem has been staring us in the face for more than a decade, and yet successive Tory governments have stuck to counter-productive policies that have pushed house price inflation higher and higher.
Reform does not guarantee success, but we can either give change a chance or continue down the same road to oblivion. It would be good to know which of these options each candidate prefers.