Day by the day, it feels ever more like there are two elections going on right now. The referendum campaign we all know about, but at the same time it feels very much that it is serving as a proxy for a challenge to David Cameron’s leadership that could follow after 23 June.
One unnamed Tory MP betrayed the strength of dislike some Conservatives feel towards their Leader, when he said he wanted to “stab David Cameron in the front, so I can see his face.” Others piled in and confirmed they would move against his Leadership and unless the referendum shows a big win for Remain, a challenge now looks quite likely.
Should Cameron be deposed this year, George Osborne’s hopes of the leadership looked doomed, so associated with the PM is he. His only chance is if David Cameron hangs on for another two years. That leaves Boris Johnson and Theresa May as the two long-standing candidates, and perhaps Michael Gove as the ‘dark horse’. Gove has come from nowhere to topping the polls as the most popular Cabinet Minister amongst party members. And as his attacks on his one-time friend David Cameron escalate, more and more people are wondering whether he fancies he might have a chance for the top job.
Boris, on the other hand, seems to be offending as many people as he impresses. Under the scrutiny of the referendum, his bombastic style is frequently jarring and whilst it might impress hard-line “outers” it seems unlikely to attract the “reasonable middle”. Whilst Theresa May seems to have decided that the best role to play in a Tory civil war is as a non-combatant, such is the low profile she is maintaining. She may well be very smart.
David Cameron might hang on of course. If he can secure a 10% win for Remain and close to 50-50 amongst Conservative voters, he might just survive. But make no mistake about it – he is fighting for his political life over the next three weeks.