Esther McVey’s leadership bid takes shape

The Work and Pensions Secretary is increasingly spoken of by colleagues as a likely candidate.

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“It’s easier to count the members of the cabinet who won’t stand to succeed Theresa than those who will,” says one special adviser for thoughts on the never-ending race to succeed the Prime Minister. “Between us, we’ve counted 11 who’ll definitely go for it.”

The pretenders to May’s crown are doing very little to conceal their ambition in Birmingham this week. Among the most enthusiastic maneuverers identified by MPs is Esther McVey, the combative Work and Pensions Secretary.

McVey, who is one of a handful of cabinet ministers not to have publicly backed the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan, WhatsApped colleagues ahead of conference to remind them she was available for private discussions at conference, which has been interpreted as a bid to drum up support.

Addressing delegates today, she gave a characteristically forthright defence of the government’s calamitous welfare policies, and dismissed reports of cuts as “fake news” (they aren’t, but it was predictably well-received in the hall). At Westminster, her ambition has been noted by Tory backbenchers too.

Around April, MPs were invited to a meeting hosted by McVey, pitched as a Department Work and Pensions brainstorming session. Attendees were struck by the fact that M&C Saatchi had been enlisted to come up with a new Tory election slogan, explicitly pitched as a response to Labour’s “For The Many Not The Few”: “For All.” (The thinking is that most voters see themselves as part of “the few”, not “the many.”)

The groundwork has been laid. However, Tories who do not share McVey’s politics are dismissive of her chances. She is considered by some to be frighteningly right-wing, and there was some disquiet when she was appointed to the DWP brief because of the perceived toxicity of her reputation. Others whisper that her relationship with Philip Davies, the divisive MP for Shipley, will count against her. But even if her chances of victory are slim, in a crowded field, who runs and on what platform matter hugely for the dynamic of the leadership race as a whole and the ideological complexion of the final two. The work and pensions secretary is worth keeping an eye on.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.