As we enter a new year it is a good moment to take a glance at who could lead the Tories into the next General Election. Bluntly, May is an interim Prime Minister who has recorded the fastest drop in popularity in modern times, losing a twenty-two point lead in the polls. Accepting this, there are two obvious options; stick with a big name or inject a fresh face. Of the promising up-and-comers, a few names have emerged that can be dropped in conversation to make you seem intelligent.
Firstly, there is Boris Johnson’s’ brother Jo who, until his recent comments about punishing universities that ban certain speakers, was untarnished. The MP for Orpington does not possess the magnetism of Boris and it is safe to suggest considering Boris’ ambitions and reputation his brother will not rise to the challenge and cause a Miliband esque battle. Kwasi Kwartengan, an impressive academic who has been dubbed “a black Boris”, is a BAME candidate who could draw a broader demographic. He is a Brexiteer who would find favour amongst the 1922 committee and is deemed promising enough to be handed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the change in the political climate to austerity led by Jeremy Corbyn and a weary public weakens Kwartengan because of his economic leanings.
Naturally the next election will be concerned with issues as much as personalities, with Brexit and the Trump presidency, foreign policy is primed to dominate. If so the likes of Johnny Mercer, an army veteran, would carry significant weight after a rise in nationalism following the EU referendum, especially in traditional Labour strongholds. However, Mercer’s inexperience and views on the welfare state undermine his credentials. A candidate of a similar background would suffice, also ex-serviceman so-called “mutineer” Tom Tugendhat stands out. In addition to the army background and being a centre-right moderate he also speaks Arabic, although how important this is to party members is debatable. Tugendhat’s opposition to Brexit would be an advantage to attract a generation of Remainers, but paradoxically will hurt any campaign internally.
The obvious candidates are current Cabinet members with proven track records and their names well known within Conservative circles. Their problem is they have been in Government for over seven years and carry baggage from austerity and Brexit. David Davies appeals to the base due to him leading the Brexit negotiations and having campaigned for Leave. He also already ran for the leadership in 2005 and is deemed to be a safe pair of hands. However, he also has so far made a mountain out of a mole hill with regards to the negotiations so far. Phillip Hammond is a good technocrat but is not someone that commentators really see leading the party. There are two others that are worth a punt, Amber Rudd and Ruth Davidson. Rudd appears competent and voted Remain which is a big draw for Tory MPs if not members. However, she has experience and came out of the party conference in October looking “dignified and grown up”.
Ruth Davidson leader north of the boarder has led the Scottish Conservatives into some relevance for the first time in decades. They replaced Labour as the challengers to the SNP in Scotland this summer. She has rejuvenated the party north of the border, sparking talk of a future leadership contest. Being a gay Scottish woman also has some political benefits. However, she has never been an MP and to challenge for the leadership let alone number 10 will prove a probable impossible task. And yet, a YouGov poll of party members in September put her ahead of Boris Johnson as a “better leader” and put her behind him by only four points as their preferred choice to take over from May.
Therefore, the judgement is that Boris Johnson is still in pole position. The candidate for Prime Minister must be elected as leader by the whole of the Conservative Party and his charm and Churchillian approach is lapped up in the Tory heartlands. This has enabled him to be such a threat he appears un-sackable. The other side of the man, the power-hungry Etonian prone-to-a-gaffe, will find it difficult to poll among swing voters and young voters.
Those of us who still hope for a Europhilic liberal utopia, with a welfare state that will be there when we are old, are praying that the rest of the public wake up and see this side of Johnson. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise and the population can be easily duped by a man who portrays an image of a false but attractive past. If you, like myself, are firmly on the left, Jacob Rees-Mogg would be the dream opponent.