Chris Skidmore was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20, and is MP for Kingswood.
Sometimes in life you have to be cruel to be kind.
And while I don’t mean to be cruel to some of my colleagues, the firing of the starting gun of a Conservative Party leadership race (now an all too familiar sound) inevitably results not just in a crowded field gathering for the start of this political Grand National; it quickly descends into the farce of many of these candidates falling lamentably at the first hurdle – or failing to even get out of the starting blocks.
For some, taking soundings from colleagues or false friends, believe they actually have a chance of winning. Others clearly calculate that standing might raise their profile in the hope of a ministerial job.
Either way, allowing any backbench MP (step forward Alfred J Prufrock) and their dog to be nominated for the leadership contest with barely a handful of supporters encourages those with perhaps less self-awareness than one might hope to put themselves forward ‘willing to serve’, with ‘fresh ideas’ that inexplicably are never actually articulated.
Still, if this is rewarded with a seat in the Today studios or an appearance on Newsnight, perhaps the colleague thinks that this is job done. Some sensibly retreat after this, backing the candidate they had always planned to from the start. Others, having by this time taken too many swigs of the Kool Aid or publicity, press on – to the inevitable car crash of not getting enough signatures to be nominated, or being the first to be eliminated in the first round.
During the last leadership election, colleagues needed just eight nominations to stand in the contest – two per cent of the Parliamentary Party. No deposit was required, either. Contrast this with a general election, in which joke or vexatious candidates are eliminated from the start with the threshold of a deposit which is subsequently lost if less than five per cent of the vote is received.
It is clear that with the Conservative Party in government and the next leader automatically becoming the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the consequences of this election is of utmost importance and seriousness. The eyes of the world will be watching the contest, which needs serious candidates who already command the support of a sizeable number of colleagues. This is not the time for narcissism.
Rather, it is time that the 1922 committee looked at revising the rules of the contest so that within the truncated timetable of the election, colleagues are presented immediately with a realistic field of contenders – each of them potential candidates for Prime Minister – rather than suffer the Conservative equivalent of Lord Buckethead on the ballot paper.
That’s why when the new 1922 executive meets on Monday, they should agree to change the rules of the contest so that no candidate can stand without ten per cent of the selectorate nominating them. At the very least, perhaps 20 MPs should be the threshold, weeding out time wasters who never have a chance of winning. Serious times demand serious candidates. Then we can focus on the policies – and not the personalities – that matter.