There’s no vacancy at number 10, and if we are to believe Damian Green, the First Secretary of State, there ain’t going to be one for years because Mrs May intends to go and fight and win a General Election in 2022.
As they say in Glasgow, “aye, right”.
Meanwhile in what some take to be the real world, succession speculation continues. Succession planning too, doubtless.
A poll of Conservative Party members , reported in The Daily Telegraph, has the Telegraph’s occasional columnist, Mr Johnson, in the lead. Queen Victoria’s last Prime Minister, the great Marquess of Salisbury, once said he would as soon take instructions, or perhaps advice, from his valet as from the Conservative Party Conference; anyone who believes that the next leader of the Conservative Party should be chosen by its members needs, in my opinion, their head seen to. Conservative Party members may be decent chaps and girls, but as judges of the mood and wishes of the wider electorate, they tend to be a bit out of step.
The Conservatives used to choose a leader after what was called “customary processes of consultation”. This meant that the Chief Whip and a couple of grandees sounded out members of the Cabinet and the 1922 Committee and came up with an answer. They might get it wrong. In 1957, Rab Butler would have been a better PM than Harold Macmillan, but Macmillan got the job, and, to be fair, won a majority in the 1959 election. Four years later, the customary processes put the 14th Earl of Home in Downing Street. Iain Macleod denounced this as a bizarre and shocking choice of the Magic Circle, but having disclaimed his title, Alec Douglas-Home came near as dammit to winning an election that everybody expected the Tories to lose heavily. He came close because he came across as decent and trustworthy.
Still, the customary processes were deemed to be out-of-date, and selection of the Party Leader was handed to MPs. This didn’t work badly. Tory MPs had at least the chance to know the candidates and estimate their worth. They got it right three times in a row, electing Ted Heath rather than Reggie Maudling (character rather than intellect), then Margaret Thatcher when they were tired of Heath, and John Major when they were tired of Mrs Thatcher. There were a couple of ruthless assassinations because, in those days, Tory MPs recognised that you pick a leader who can win a General Election, and indeed Heath, Thatcher and Major won five elections between them.
Tory MPs, shell-shocked after the 1997 election disaster, installed the young William Hague. His task was hopeless and he resigned in 2001, but not before arranging to give the Party membership the final say in choosing a new leader, after ballots of MPs had left them with a choice between two candidates. They promptly confirmed Salisbury’s wisdom by electing Iain Duncan Smith. A couple of years later MPs rebelled and, in a sort of revival of the old Magic Circle, installed Michael Howard as leader. Howard resigned after losing the 2005 election and this time the new system worked well enough, David Cameron beating David Davis in the run-off. When Cameron resigned after losing the EU referendum, there followed a couple of weeks of plotting and panic, but rivals fell away in the parliamentary rounds of voting or made fools of themselves. So Mrs May became leader without needing a formal endorsement by the Party membership. It was a bit as if the old “customary processes” had taken on a new lease of life.
What now, or, rather what next? Suppose that Mrs May’s lease runs out. What sort of leader does the Party need? Can that decision be left to the membership? It might be daft to do so. It might equally be daft to leave it to MPs. Elections bring divisions into the open air. They reveal the strength of the opposition to the eventual winner. There was this to be said for the old “customary processes” and Magic Circle. Divisions could be hushed up. The public rarely knew the strength of the opposition to the new leader.
On the other hand, those who believe that the final word should belong to the membership might say things have changed since the old days, that people demand openness now. They might also say “look at Labour”. Lots of us thought that the election of Jeremy Corbyn proved that members will pick a leader whom the wider public would reject. Corbyn’s surge in the General Election and since makes us look a bit silly. The newly recruited far-Left Labour members look to have judged well. Corbyn’s Labour now leads the Tories in the polls. The unelectable looks electable; bizarre.
When the vacancy occurs, the first question for Tories, in Parliament and out of it, shouldn’t be “who?”. It should be “what sort of leader do we want?”. In considering this, Jeremy Corbyn is relevant again. It’s true he was put in by the votes of the activists on the Left and enthusiastic young people drawn to politics often for the first time.But his comparative success in the General Election and his rise in the polls since arguably owe less to his ideas than to his manner. When Tory friends told me that Mrs May had made a mistake when she refused to debate with Mr Corbyn, I said they were wrong. Corbyn does well in head-to-head encounters because he is soft-spoken and polite and comes across as a modest and likeable old boy. Labour happened on a far-Left leader whom you would be quite happy to invite in for a cup of tea.
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The Tories may have Mr Corbyn’s mirror-image in Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose natural good manners make it possible for people to like him while discounting his opinions. This makes him electable instead of being unelectable – just like Mr Corbyn. A TV debate between the two would actually be a treat. In today’s world, characterised by the strident expression of ill-informed opinion on social media, one shouldn’t underrate the importance of likeability.
Where does this leave the long-time favourite of the suburbs and country towns, Mr Johnson? Some certainly still, despite everything, find this colourful figure likeable, good fun anyway. But there are questions about him, and he carries a lot of baggage – some of which gives off a nasty whiff. David Maxwell-Fyfe (later Lord Kilmuir) once said that “loyalty was the Tories’ secret weapon”. He soon found out how wrong he was, when Harold Macmillan sacked him without warning in the so-called Night of the Long Knives. Be that as it may, “loyal” is not a word anyone would apply to Mr Johnson. In 1960 the Democrats asked of Richard Nixon, “would you buy a used car from this man?” For Nixon then, read Johnson now.
The Tories need a leader who is likeable and trustworthy. They need someone who will calm things down. They need someone like Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin once said his chief aim in politics was to prevent the Class War from becoming a reality in Britain. Today Britain is again a deeply divided country, divided between the generations rather than between classes (for the division between Rich and Poor cuts across classes). The Tories can’t afford another divisive leader like Margaret Thatcher, however necessary she may have been in 1979. They need a unifying figure.They need a leader who will try to heal divisions, not stir things up, one who will in effect say, “there, there”. They need a leader who people think is nice – who actually is nice.
Perhaps the Party members might happen on such a leader, but I doubt it. I doubt if the MPs themselves would pick one who fits the bill. Perhaps there is no such person to be found. If there isn’t the Tories are doomed to lose the next election. Perhaps the old “customary processes” might happen on the right man or woman. Certainly the old “customary processes” would never have put someone like Mr Johnson in number 10. “Something not quite right about him, you know” would have been the Magic Circle’s verdict. “Just a bit flash, old boy. Wouldn’t buy a horse from him.”