Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Conservatives will battle for Britain's future (Sunday Telegraph)

Rather than shifting left or shifting right, the Conservatives are positioning themselves in the "common ground" of British politics, says David Cameron.

2. The Tories should now know you don't beat Ukip by copying them (Observer)

Conservative MPs urging David Cameron to lurch right are drawing the wrong conclusion from Eastleigh, says Andrew Rawnsley.

3. Dave's rebels pull off their gloves - for the big Budget bust-up (Mail on Sunday)

David Cameron and George Osborne’s internal enemies are set to demand a change of economic direction, writes James Forsyth.

4. The PM can still win, but it might have to get personal (Sunday Telegraph)

People need to hear a narrative that makes sense of the pain, the change and the challenge – and they haven’t heard it yet, writes Matthew d'Ancona.

5. Ten years on, the case for invading Iraq is still valid (Observer)

A decade after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, why are some progressives still loath to celebrate his demise, asks Nick Cohen.

6. As ever, Tony Blair is David Cameron's guide (Independent on Sunday)

The credit-rating downgrade and Ukip's success in Eastleigh could have resulted in the PM changing course, writes John Rentoul. He has rightly not done so.

7. How shaming the poor became our new bloodsport (Observer)

Politicians have taken the lead in blaming poverty on the poor, writes Barbara Ellen.

8. At long last, a return to British justice (Mail on Sunday)

Theresa May's plan to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights will ensure foreign criminals cannot be sheltered from justice, says a Mail on Sunday editorial.

9. UKIP’s purple patch is here to stay, PM (Sunday Times)

The potential is there for Farage and his followers to move from disruptive force to breakthrough, writes Adam Boulton.

10. Aid has transformed Africa. Now is the time for growth and governance (Observer)

Africa has made huge advances since the 2005 Glenagles summit – but it still needs our support, says Tony Blair.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.