Ever since the exit poll flashed on television screens across the country, speculation has been rife as to who will succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. May now serves at the pleasure of the Cabinet and is stabilising the new minority government as Brexit negotiations begin. For now, Conservative ministers and MPs insist May will stay as leader for the long-run. But calls for a leadership election are growing in the centre-right press, especially after the clumsy response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
Even if May does remain in office to oversee the next two years of Brexit negotiations, there will be a constant stream of stories about who her successor will be, and there is already a clear field of candidates. Commentators understandably focus on the personality traits of politicians when judging their suitability for high office, but principles and ideology matter as well. Each candidate would mean different things for the future of Conservatism and Brexit at a moment when British politics is in flux.
Among the ground troops of the parliamentary Conservative party, there are two broad camps; the Tory right and the Tory mainstream. The Tory right has a serious and credible candidate with David Davis who has impressed many during his tenure as Brexit Secretary. Brexiteers trust him to implement the Brexit blueprint set out in May’s Lancaster House speech, more so than any of the other candidates. As a free-marketeer and civil libertarian, Davis would make the economic liberals and libertarians in the party very happy indeed. Davis’s humble background also makes him attractive as a Conservative in the Thatcherite tradition. The only risk is that Davis as leader could be interpreted by the electorate as a step back to the pre-Cameron era of the “nasty party”.
As for the Tory mainstream, the centrist wing of the party, there is a weaker and more fragmented field of candidates. Nicky Morgan and Jeremy Hunt are well known to harbour ambitions for the top job. They lack the seniority or support enjoyed by their rivals but could still throw their hats into the ring. Philip Hammond is the big beast in this camp who could stand for the leadership. This is very much the home of Tory Remainers who want to see a “soft Brexit” which puts jobs and growth before controls on immigration, and Hammond has consistently been their spokesman in the Cabinet. The risk of Hammond as leader would be a large-scale Brexit backlash from Leave voters in the next election.
Then there are the Tory modernisers, the officer class which ran the party under David Cameron. There is a divide within this camp over Brexit between the Osbornites and Borisites. George Osborne is no longer in Parliament but he still has an influential network of allies which he cultivated during his time as Chancellor. The most formidable of these allies is Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who had a “good war” during the election campaign and has been a strong advocate for Tory Remainers in Cabinet. But Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is attractive to many Tories as the populist who led the Vote Leave campaign to victory with a positive, liberal case for Brexit. Since his return to Cabinet, Michael Gove could become a kingmaker between Rudd and Boris. Despite their differences on Brexit, both candidates would return the party to the liberal Conservatism of the Cameron-era.
Noticeably, there is no faction of Mayites ready to back a candidate who shares May’s vision for a communitarian conservatism which charts a middle way between globalism and nationalism. May’s manifesto is being torn up and Nick Timothy’s ideas discredited because of the disappointing election result. There were certainly mistakes made in the manifesto and the election campaign, but there is much in Mayism which can help the Conservatives prosper in the future.
The next Conservative leader faces a difficult electoral challenge. He or she will have to reach out to the working-class Leavers, middle-class Remainers, public sector workers, and young people who fuelled the Labour surge. Falling back on old ideological templates will not help. Brexit has reshaped the political landscape and the Conservatives will have to adapt in order to survive. Conservatives cannot wait until a leadership election to discuss the party’s future. The conversation will have to start now and could very well decide whether the party has a future as a majority party.