Conservative candidates jostle for the top spot, but the first job is likely to be as leader of the opposition, writes John McTernan
And they’re off! The race to be next leader of the Conservative Party has started in earnest, with only two real contenders – George Osborne and Boris Johnson. But wait, I hear you cry, there’s no vacancy, Boris isn’t even an MP, and isn’t there an election to win? All good questions, and all very good reasons why the Tories are about to enjoy a wholly unnecessary and damaging period of internal conflict.
Let’s start at the top. There is, to be sure, no vacancy for leader, David Cameron is going nowhere. He is certain he is the right man for the job, and you certainly shouldn’t be prime minister without that borderline messianic certainty. More to the point, he believes that he is on track to win an overall majority at the next election.
This despite failing to get Tory support in the polls above the level that delivered just 306 seats in 2010 – but remember what I said about heroic self-belief. George Osborne, too, acts as if he truly believes that victory at the next election is just a few good economic figures away. Of course, he’s in a win/win position. In the event of an election victory he can claim to be the midwife of the majority through delivering an economic turnaround. If there’s a defeat he is the senior man standing when Cameron falls on his sword. And he has the weight loss and the new haircut just in case of that eventuality.
This is the unspoken crux of the matter. Hardly any Tory back-benchers believe that they will win the next election. It is one of the paradoxes of modern British politics that neither side think that they will, or indeed can, win in 2015 – Labour and Tory loyalists alike are pessimistic about their own party’s prospects.
(This presumably accounts for the completely undeserved and somewhat grating bounciness of Nick Clegg – whoever loses, he wins in what he believes will be another coalition.)
For some Tory MPs that is a matter of regret – they would like their party to stay in power. For many other Tory back-benchers an election loss would be a triumph – there is a Tory “Bennism” abroad which believes that a loss would enable them to purify their party, purging it of the dangerous centrist elements. Once you understand that the Tory leadership contest is about who is the next leader of the Opposition it all becomes clearer.
As I have noted, Osborne is in pole position. His loyalty to Cameron will count in his favour, and he will be able to distance himself from most of the policy disasters – “I just did the numbers, mate.”
He also has the merit of having a very clear political analysis. You may not agree with it, but it is out in the open – small state, low taxes, harsh welfare, deregulation. Oddly, the importance of having your own politics rooted in an intellectual position is routinely under-valued in commentary on Westminster. It is invariably the difference between those who succeed and those who fail.
Other, arguably more talented, rivals like Jeremy Hunt look at the moment more like talented technicians and problem solvers. As for Theresa May, well her big insight was in 2002, and it was a good one – the Tory Party are still the “nasty party” – it’s just she’s never been clear what she thinks the answer is. Apart from her, that is.
So, turning to Boris – what is he for? No, not who he is, or what he’s said, but what does he believe in? After six years of Mayor of London we can say this: he’s against infrastructure – he cancelled the trams and a river crossing; but he’s for bus conductors – he commissioned the £1 million bus, his new Routemaster. Oh, and he likes a good party. The Olympics were marvellous for him, delivered by others so he wasn’t exposed to any risk, but a great backdrop for boosterism.
On the big issues that split the modern Tory party, Boris faces in two directions. On the one hand, he is a noted euro-sceptic, and as a journalist was responsible for propagating many of the longest lasting and most pernicious euro-myths. On the other, he is for immigration – he has seen what it has done for London’s growth. This latter is the key to Johnson. He’s a pragmatist posing as a populist. He speaks for the City because finance drives the economic prosperity of London. That’s why he is also against the UK leaving the EU. The single market is good for London, just as it is for the rest of the country.
This makes the Osborne-Johnson struggle really interesting. Because Osborne too is a supporter of staying in the single market. And why shouldn’t he be? It is, after all, Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy. However, that doesn’t matter any more to the significant numbers on the Tory back-benches who are totally opposed to Europe. These MPs only want a referendum on the European Union in order to leave it. If the Tories were to be re-elected they would give Cameron a torrid time if he ended up holding a vote but arguing for staying in. In the event of an election defeat the hounds would be loose. Because it is the Tories most painful internal split it would define any future leadership election which would give both Osborne and Johnson a difficult choice. Can you afford to be pro-Brexit (a British exit) since it would define you as anti-business? But can you get elected as leader without being for quitting.
The worst thing about all this for Cameron – and for the Tories – is that it is the source of constant speculation. Will Boris run for parliament? Will he stay on as mayor? Does he want to be PM? Endless column inches – or should that be centimetres? All out of No 10’s control. They need clear air and a chance to set out a positive economic narrative. What they will get is quite another thing.