To paraphrase Churchill, still a Tory touchstone, the Tory Leadership is not at the beginning of the end, but it is now at the end of the beginning. The MPs have had their say in the first two contest rounds on Tuesday and Thursday and now the membership will get their say on the final two. The rapid removal of Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb was expected on Tuesday and both withdrew to endorse May, having put themselves on the Tory party map. With May winning the support of almost half of MPs on Tuesday and going into the final round, Gove and Leadsom were left to battle it out for the key second slot.
The panic a reasonably poor third place induced in Gove’s team led to a group text message from Nick Boles, his campaign manager, which urged May voters to back Gove, because in his own words “I am seriously frightened about the risk of allowing Andrea Leadsom onto the membership ballot… Are we really confident that the membership won’t vote for a fresh face who shares their attitudes about much of modern life, like they did with IDS?”
Unsurprisingly, given the last minute ditching of Boris the week before, this went down like lead balloon among MPs already concerned about Gove’s trustworthiness. In Thursday’s vote Gove actually went backward from Tuesday, despite 50 or so MPs who had previously voted for Crabb and Fox being up for grabs, dropping his total by 2 MPs. This deeply humiliating outcome is unlikely to mean the end of Gove – given the size of his intellect and the number of challenges currently facing the country and Tory party he will still have a place if he wants it – though probably not at the top table for now. The last two weeks have been a reminder that for the Tory party, being a ‘good solid chap (or of course chappess)’ is much more important than raw intellect.
The Conservative party and country meanwhile will now be led by a woman for the second time in its history. The meritocratic principle is alive and kicking in the Tory party. But other than gender, the two candidates are very different. May is relatively unknown in terms of her views outside her Home Office brief (though you should read this speech from 2013 at Policy Exchange for some of her views on the economy and her approach in general). Broadly from her record so far, she is a more centrist economic candidate with an authoritarian streak. Leadsom is even less known, and so far the main thing that has appeared is that she has some small ‘c’ conservative views (e.g. on fox hunting, or her abstention on gay marriage). So far she has spoken only in platitudes in economic terms, and this is the most interesting area to watch. Yet the fact she stood for Leave and has pushed herself forward so quickly indicates a temperament very different to the cool and calculated May, who practically ignored the referendum, waiting until the dust settled to come through the middle and push herself forward.
In any case, the fate of the country now rests in between 130-150,000 largely elderly, middle class and Conservative members, focused in England, who voted clearly for Leave. Yet they rate competence and chose Cameron in 2005, which shows that some of the stereotypes are not entirely accurate. Moreover, the most interesting policy shift in the election contest so far has been the abandonment of ‘austerity’ with almost all the candidates pledging to tear up the plan to abolish the deficit by 2020 (worth noting this is 12 years after the last recession began). This was clearly judged as a winner by the five candidates. Over the next couple of months it is likely that more policies and surprises will be on the way, since the Tory leadership drama will continue, on current plans, until the 9th September.