If you are in the market for narratives of Conservative revival, there is a semi-plausible one on offer from most of that party’s MPs. It goes something like this: the government emerges from the Brexit negotiations with a deal that delivers a gentle transition, the economy avoids a serious recession and the parliament runs until its expiry date of June 2022. By then, Jeremy Corbyn will have been in place for almost seven years and will have lost some of his radical chic, in contrast to the new Tory leader – “Candidate X” – who will win a small but workable parliamentary majority.
The difficulty is that no one can agree on who Candidate X might be. In contemplative moments, Conservative MPs reflect on their situation two years ago after David Cameron announced that he would not contest a third general election and the party’s thoughts inevitably turned to the succession. Back then, Tories believed they had an embarrassment of riches: not only George Osborne, Cameron’s preferred heir, but Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the up-and-coming cabinet ministers Sajid Javid, Stephen Crabb and Amber Rudd, and promising backbenchers such as Dominic Raab.
Now the field of alternatives to May is looking sparse. Osborne is out of parliament. Javid has not distinguished himself as Communities Secretary and was expected to lose his post in the event of a May landslide. Johnson’s appeal at Westminster was always based on his presumed support in the country, and as that has waned, so have his leadership prospects. Crabb, once the great hope of the modernisers, is on the back benches and his majority was slashed at the last election. Rudd’s stock rose during the election campaign but it ended with her securing only a wafer-thin majority in her Sussex seat of Hastings and Rye.
Raab’s fate illustrates the wider problem. He has long been tipped as the coming man of the Conservative right, but because of Cameron’s reluctance to reshuffle, Raab has yet to prove himself in a senior ministerial brief. (He was made minister of state for courts and justice in June, after being elected in 2010.)
The options for replacements are therefore uninspiring, and this explains why most Conservative MPs do not want a leadership election just yet. Allies of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, talk up his potential as an interim prime minister – able to bring through younger talents and settle the Brexit question – but the appetite in the wider parliamentary party for going through three prime ministers in a single term is small. Backbenchers, particularly in marginal seats, know that one of the few strengths of the Tory brand is the party’s reputation for level-headedness. In a 2022 election, that would be hard to maintain after four prime ministers in 12 years. “We would look like bloody Italy,” is how one minister puts it.
Regardless of what the average Conservative MP might want, however, the first stage of the contest is already under way. It began at 10pm on the evening of 8 June, when the BBC’s exit poll showed that the government was on course to lose its parliamentary majority. Success in a big ministerial portfolio is important for an ambitious politician, but now there is another temptation – to advertise the failures of your rivals.
This partly explains a series of damaging leaks about Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, first to the Sun on 15 July and then to the Sunday Times the day after. In the Sun, the Chancellor was said to have remarked that driving a train was now so easy that “even a woman” could do it, a comment he straightforwardly denied when it was raised by Andrew Marr on his BBC show.
Hammond was more equivocal, however, when confronted with the Sunday Times story that he had also called people working in the public sector “overpaid”.
The Chancellor is in three sets of cross hairs. The first is for being a Tory leadership contender, albeit a weak one. (He has the support of few MPs.) The second is for his relative softness on Brexit. The third is for his commitment to the current programme of cuts. Any of those frustrations alone might have stayed as tea room whispers. The combination of all three makes him a marked man.
Although Hammond qualified his remark on public-sector pay, the political damage has been done. The problem for his Conservative opponents is that the wounds from this dust-up are not only borne by the Chancellor. Hammond is far from a household name, so most voters think less not of a single pretender to the Conservative throne but of the entire party. For the sake of their electoral prospects, his rivals should be very careful about putting the word “uncaring” and “Tory minister” in the same sentence.
This danger is well appreciated by Conservative backbenchers, which is why a week of toxic headlines for the government as a whole has increased, rather than diminished, Theresa May’s chances of hanging on. The influential 1922 Committee of backbenchers has given the Prime Minister licence to assert what is left of her authority by sacking anyone who briefs too obviously against fellow ministers or betrays cabinet secrets.
The resentment is particularly acute among some backbenchers because the politicians at the centre of the row – including, it is widely suggested, the newly rehabilitated Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary – all sit for seats that were solidly Conservative, even in the rout of 1997. MPs for marginals resent squabbling among entrenched grandees while they face being picked off in any Labour advance.
There are, however, few ways for backbenchers to avenge themselves on one plotter without rewarding another. As a result, the jostling for advantage will continue long into the summer and beyond.
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder