Conservative leadership contests traditionally favour the most europhobic candidate (mere scepticism was long abandoned). In 1997 and 2001, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith triumphed over a superior politician (Ken Clarke) on these grounds. In 2005, David Cameron won on a modernising platform but outflanked his rivals by vowing to withdraw the Tories from the federalist European People’s Party. By appeasing, rather than confronting europhobia, Cameron set in train the events that led to the Brexit vote.
In the next Tory leadership contest, the signs are that Brussels-bashing will once again pay. ConservativeHome’s latest party members’ survey gives the three Brexiteers positive approval ratings. David Davis (the favourite to succeed Theresa May) is on +72.5, Liam Fox +48.9 and Boris Johnson +39.9. Conversely, after championing a three-year Brexit transition period, Philip Hammond’s approval rating has fallen to a record low of -25.4 (from -11.5). Only Conservative chairman Patrick McLoughlin, still bearing the blame for the Tories’ election failure, fares worse.
Other Remainers are also punished (80 per cent of Tory activists backed Leave). Amber Rudd, another supporter of a lengthy transition period, sees her approval rating fall from 45.8 to just 22.4. Rudd’s Brexit stance, combined with her micro-majority of 346, represents the greatest obstacle to her leadership ambitions. The Home Secretary is, however, hopeful of winning the endorsement of the Tories’ highest-rated politician: Ruth Davidson. Though the Tory grassroots like Brexiteers, it appears they like winners even more (Davidson’s rating is +81.9). Were it not for the 12 seats gained by the Scottish Conservatives, the Tories would not be in government at all. But Davidson’s support for a soft Brexit could yet taint her in activists’ eyes.
Should the next leadership contest take place after Brexit, the Remainers may hope to neutralise the subject. But the risk for them is that, as in the past, Tory members reward those who stood with them in the trenches. The political incentive for cabinet ministers to back a “hard Brexit”, or to resign in protest at the negotiations, is therefore significant. On Europe, party and country are once again in conflict.