Last year, Labour elected a leader with paltry support among MPs but with mass support among party members. After the announcement that Andrea Leadsom will face Theresa May in the Conservative leadership election on 9 September, many are asking whether the energy minister can emulate Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph. Like the Labour leader, Leadsom is opposed by the majority of her party’s MPs (just 84 – 26 per cent – voted for her in the final parlamentary ballot) but many of her stances align with those of members.
This is most obviously true in the case of Brexit. In common with around two-thirds of Tory members, but not May, Leadsom backed Leave. Will her ideological soundness trump her lack of ministerial experience? Though the possibility of a Leadsom victory shouldn’t be entirely dismissed (this is the party that elected Iain Duncan Smith, after all), the odds are against it.
A YouGov/Times poll of Tory members published earlier this week gave May a 32-point lead over her rival. The Home Secretary’s administrative experience and reluctant support for Remain appear to have worked in her favour (Brexiters backed her by 49-44). That the Tories are electing a Prime Minister, rather than merely an opposition leader (the first time a party membership has done so), has concentrated minds. Labour members embraced Corbyn after the trauma of defeat to the Conservatives. Tory Leavers have already secured the prize they want (one reason why a narrow Remain victory may have better suited pro-Brexit candidates). In these tumultuous times, May’s “safe” pitch appeals to members’ conservative instincts.
Crucial to Corbyn’s landslide victory was his success in reshaping Labour’s electorate. His campaign attracted new and old left-wing members and signed up thousands of registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for him). But these options are not available to Leadsom. Only Conservative members of three months’ standing are permitted to vote and the party has not mimicked Labour’s £3 scheme. Though Leadsom has won Nigel Farage’s endorsement, there is no possibility of Ukip entryism. It is the reverse phenomenon – exitism – that imperils Leadsom. David Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats, support for equal marriage and initial opposition to an EU referendum saw thousands of Tory members defect to Ukip. Before the last general election, only half of Conservatives supported a deal with Farage’s party, compared to three-quarters who supported one with Nick Clegg’s.
Leadsom’s best hope is to argue that only a Brexiter can be trusted to manage EU withdrawal and to deride May’s failure to reduce net migration. But she will still struggle to overturn a 32-point deficit in just two months. To most on the left, a Leadsom premiership looks like a nightmare. It is likely to remain one.