Leadership elections of political parties are always a fraught process at the best of times, for a ruling government to hold one in the midst of such an epoch-changing event as the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union is infinitely so. It should be no surprise then that we have witnessed from the Conservative Party in the last week is Machiavelli on speed.
For the Official Opposition to coincidentally endure a botched coup d’état that has left it writhing painfully on the floor with no end in sight, only serves to let the Tories off the hook for their self indulgence. The Labour Party’s process has yet to be clarified, but for the Tories it is well underway, and by tomorrow the first stage of whittling-down the five contenders to the two from whom its members will choose will have begun.
Of the five nominees Theresa May and Stephen Crabb, were supporters of the Remain campaign, while Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox were all highly active in campaigning for Leave.
Theresa May is already certain of being voted through to the next round, the difficult question is who will join her, and it is by no means certain.
It is after this process that Conservative Party members will have their conclusive say. The only issue that should be central to their thinking is who will make the most electable leader. The obvious answer is to expect this should be the most experienced and well-known minister Theresa May, which is why she is currently the bookies’ favourite and showing well in polling – for what that is worth. Such an assumption is far too simplistic, for once the leadership election campaign starts in earnest the candidates’ judgment and record will come under greater scrutiny, and it is Mrs May that has most to explain.
Being well known is not necessarily a good thing, it rather depends on what people are well known for. It is all very well Theresa May’s supporters claiming she possesses a safe pair of hands that are needed at this time of extraordinary political and economic turbulence. Many others, both inside and outside her party might disagree, and this will be key to making her electable.
Likewise, experience is of little value if a minister has actually delivered a catalogue of failures. Errors can be forgiven but failing to learn from them cannot. On both counts it is therefore worth considering the performance of Theresa May.
It is Theresa May that has been Home Secretary when record levels of immigration have been reached. This must be of some considerable concern to Tory members, especially in constituencies where UKIP is breathing down their necks. That she cannot control the number of migrants from the EU is accepted, but where she does have the means of control to limit non-EU migrants she has failed spectacularly.
She has also presided over significant manpower and budget cuts in the English police forces and the UK Border Force, the latter being shown to allow people smuggling into British coastal ports. May also introduced the Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act without consultation, that was ruled to be illegal by the High Court. She opted the UK back into the European Arrest Warrant, putting people living in Britain at the mercy of judicial systems that do not match our own and presided over 700 foreign criminals being released from police custody without checks.
This embarrassing charge sheet of failures would normally have seen a Home Secretary reshuffled into another post, but David Cameron kept her in place so she might be an ally, just as he has with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Just as worrying is May’s poor sense of judgment, a quality that must be the key to becoming prime minister.
Having made an outspoken immigration speech that raised hopes amongst those campaigning for Brexit she would join them she then supported the Prime Minister’s renegotiated package when it was clear it did nothing to answer her criticisms. By comparison, more junior ministers including Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom showed political bravery in taking the courageous decision to stand by their principles and say the reforms were insufficient.
Having taken the easy option of being a party loyalist she then failed to impose herself in any meaningful way during the campaign, save for a few interviews that made the government look even more ambiguous than before.
Had she shown the leadership we are now told to expect from her as a prime minister by taking up the EU’s cause, so she was never of the television screens, the remain campaign might just have won. She didn’t and it lost.
Again by comparison, Andrea Leadsom put herself about, both in public meetings and in television debates, where she connected with audiences irrespective of party leanings. It is in her ability to offer an upbeat, positive vision of the UK without any of May’s baggage that the forever smiling Leadsom offers a fresh start for Conservatives, by completing the break with Cameron’s government.
While May supporters talk of her uniting the party, Leadsom offers the potential of uniting not just the centre-right, by encouraging UKIP supporters back to the Tory party, but appealing to Leave voters loyal to Labour.
She can reach the parts of the country no other candidate can. Of the 231 Labour-held constituencies it is estimated 160 voted for leave. How could Theresa May make any impact in those seats? She would just be the same old Tory to Labour leave voters.
The EU referendum gave the victorious leave campaign 17.4m votes, the largest number for any political decision or party in British history.
For the Conservative Party to choose a leader that did not support this cause because she did not have the passion or principle to take the risk of upsetting her managerial career would surely be an act of folly.
Delivering Brexit quickly so the country can heal and move on is an issue where Conservatives could reconnect with working class voters. To do that they need a leader that believes in the decision they supported, showed she could speak for the nation but is not the divisive figure that Michael Gove has become.
Why, just when the opportunity presents itself to deliver a truly one-nation party, would the membership want to elect a leader that represents more of the same, and chose to be on the wrong side of history?