The potential Conservative leadership election is already looking like a battle of weak vs weaker - in a bitterly-divided, rump Tory party.
Talk of a leadership challenge to Theresa May began long before her disastrous speech at Conservative Party conference. From Boris Johnson’s grandstanding to calls for an even harsher Brexit, the knives have never been far away from the Prime Minister.
Yet this week has made it clear that the calls no longer look like idle threats, but genuine plots to oust the Tory leader. With little progress on the Brexit talks, and her authority in tatters following her failure to sack BoJo, names are beginning to emerge as to who might take over in the event of a leadership challenge.
Last night, senior Tory Grant Shapps took to Radio 4 to say May must go.
A couple of points have to be made. Firstly, while Cabinet ministers want her to go, there is by no means a consensus on who should take over. The party remains highly divided between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexiteers – between (former) Remainers like Nicky Morgan and hardcore Leavers like Graham Brady.
More than that though, any challenge leaves the future of the UK dependent on 318 Tory MPs to pick two candidates. That could go one of two ways. As politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt points out today:
“It might become a bidding war on hard Brexit for the Tory rank-and-file, with each candidate making ever more desperate promises to secure the support of a hardline membership.
Or perhaps the odd dynamics of the parliamentary party would provide two softer figures – Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, say – to be sent out as the choice to members.”
Let’s not forget that the Conservatives now have a rump membership of just 100,000. It’s reported that most of the fresh blood who joined expecting a leadership election last year (remember Leadsom v May?) have failed to renew.
Who does that leave us with? Certainly not those advocating peace, harmony and consistency with our European neighbours.
And a shift in either political direction will undermine the Tories’ mandate from June’s election. Calls for another election would instantly become deafening.
But who is in the running? A quick look at the roll-call of mooted challengers suggests there’s not a great deal of hope for the right:
- Grant Shapps – the ostensible ring-leader of the current plotting – arguably has too much dirt on him to be leadership material. The businessman was forced to resign during the Young Conservatives bullying scandal, receiving an £8,000 payoff. He repeatedly denied he was using a pseudonym (‘Michael Green’) to conduct bizarre e-business ventures while he was still an MP – before the evidence became overwhelming and he had to admit it. Oh, and he edited his Wikipedia page to delete references to his (fairly weak) performance at school. Odd guy.
- Boris Johnson appears to have sunk his own bid before it began, by continuing to make an embarrassment of himself. If authority is what MPs and members are looking for, it’s hard to see how Johnson can be a contender. He was vilified by everyone but the Telegraph for his rambling 4,000 word ‘essay’ last month, before following it by a) Reciting a colonial poem in Myanmar and b) Making a speech in which he joked Libya would be ripe for investment ‘once they clear the bodies away’.
- Amber Rudd – soft Brexiteer and former investment banker – would surely never make it past the membership. But it’s the authority issue which arises again. Rudd kept her seat by just 346 votes in June. If she can’t convincingly win her own constituency, how can she win over diehard Brexiteers?
- Phillip Hammond – a poll in June found that the Chancellor actually puts off more voters than he would attract. Mr Boring could actually be a risky gamble.
While we’re still in the ‘phoney war’ stages, talk could soon turn to action. The problem for the Tories is that the contenders look just as weak as she does. This is a battle of weak against weak – before we even come to the issue of who picks the winner in a bitterly-split, rump Tory party.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.