How candidate voted in 2016 and their subsequent attitude towards the result
Given the wide range of candidates – five Remainers and seven Leavers – and the near limitless spectrum of policy and personality concerns, several interpretations by MPs and members may affect the outcome in this contest.
A Remainer-turned-Brexiteer agenda set out by Theresa May has (at least, partially) been unsuccessful. Hardened Remainer MPs reject candidates who embrace a no deal scenario, while hard Brexit/ERG allies seemingly reject what they perceive as another Remainer-convert to their cause. It seems likely some form of Brexit strategy is to be pursued but the political environment is strongly divided.
Inside Parliament, candidates will be well aware that most Tory MPs were Remainers in 2016 (by 185 to 128) and still are, while 73% of the membership voted Leave. As a test of Conservative grassroots, a ConservativeHome run-off panel showed that support in April and May tended to favour Johnson, then Raab, Gove, Javid and Hunt, in that order. A YouGov poll run just before Theresa May’s resignation revealed a similar order in membership ratings. In contrast, inside Parliament by the end of May, MPs’ support for candidates stood at 29 for Hunt, 28 for Johnson, 27 for Gove, 22 for Raab, 17 for Javid, 11 for Hancock – and the rest below six.
As for the voters, in the latest European elections, 67% of the pro-no deal Brexit Party’s vote came from 2017 Tories, with only 32% responding that they would now come back at the next general election.
Furthermore, 61% of Conservatives who switched to the Lib Dems say they are likely to stay with them for the general election. Nonetheless, most members of the public seemed to agree (‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’) (by 57 to 13%) that the next Conservative leader should have supported Leave during the referendum. One Tory Brexiteer MP even referred to a Remain vote by candidates as a “kiss of death” among members voting for the leadership.
Ability to negotiate a renewed Brexit deal by October
Given the perceived flaws in Theresa May’s negotiated deal, a whole raft of slogans have been aired outlining strategies for renegotiated Brexit: out by October, deal or no deal (Johnson, Leadsom), a unity candidate (Gove, Malthouse), get a deal, or proceed with no deal (Cleverley), Brexit moderates to get a deal as there won’t be a no deal scenario (Hunt, Hancock), clean Brexit, opt for no deal, out on WTO terms (Ester McVey), new direction and leaving with deal (Raab), strongly anti-no deal (Stewart), prefer a deal with a short extension but keep no deal on the table (Harper) or simply, get on and deliver Brexit (Javid).
Notably, though, all these scenarios rely on the ability to negotiate, and so the candidate’s capacity and skill in this area will be judged carefully, first by MPs, and then by the membership. Hunt launched his candidacy as a businessman-deal-maker-negotiator; and while Johnson outshone other candidates, a YouGov polled found that 23% said that he would do well, but as many as 43% said he would handle negotiations poorly.
The most significant and current obstacle, though, is that all moderate candidates pledging a renegotiation for a better withdrawal deal may face a brick wall in Brussels – many EU leaders, including the Commission President, have already said that such a new renegotiation under a new leader would not happen.
Ability to win elections
There are many ways of evaluating a candidate’s likely capacity to win elections, but both party membership and public polling long put Johnson (with his London Mayoralty experience) well ahead. Prior to May’s resignation, the Conservative membership rated a number of MPs’ ability as hypothetical leaders to win a general election: Johnson (70%), Raab (42%), Javid (39%), Gove (32%), Hunt (29%), Leadsom (28%), Mordaunt (26%), Stewart (14%) and Hancock (11%). Likewise, when contrasted with other candidates, the public had more faith in Johnson to win a general election than any of the other candidates. However, this needs to be balanced against polled research showing that while 32% say Johnson could win an election, 37% respond that he wouldn’t.
Experience seems to be less relevant (at least, less mentioned) in the heat of Brexit debates. There‘s a wealth of career experience among the candidates – the current and former Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Environment Secretary and the Health Secretary are all running. Oddly, though, some of this just doesn’t resonate in the current political environment: Harper, for example, announced his candidacy by stressing that he was the only person in the running who had not been a part of May’s administration.
Ability to provide tough leadership in difficult times
Given that 79% of the membership thought May was doing badly as Prime Minister in the weeks preceding her resignation, there is now a deep-seated requirement for strong leadership – over and above calls for ‘a safe pair of hands’ or a cautious moderniser. Party members have rated the candidates in terms of ability to be strong leaders: Johnson (69%), Raab (47%), Gove (46%), Javid (43%), Leadsom (35%), Hunt, Mordaunt (31%), Stewart (16%) and Hancock (12%).
Vision beyond Brexit
Brexit will have a heavy presence in this election, and yet the vision of leaders beyond Brexit is necessarily important given that leadership requires a comprehensive outlook across all policy fields. Raab was careful to stress this when announcing his candidacy, expressing a vision on ‘fairness’: cutting taxes for the lowest paid, lowering the cost of living, and increasing opportunities.
Then there’s the ‘One Nation Tory’ intervention (yes, currently most Remain MPs), coordinated by George Freeman MP and Nicky Morgan MP, among others, calling for candidates to commit to public services, tackling monopolies, soft power and aid abroad, and an economic policy covering the financial health of the whole country, along with improved clean, green policies. Regardless of whether this call is taken up by any of the candidates, it illustrates the need for a vision beyond Brexit.
Ability to find cross-party consensus (when necessary)
At least in the short term, any victorious candidate will face a similar parliamentary arithmetic, and similar party division, thereby forcing them to work across the House. Electing a leader who wishes to find consensus across the Commons seems unpopular among the membership; and yet the ability of a leader to do so when inevitable difficulties arise is obvious.
Ability to consult the party
A return to the Prime Minister properly and more formally consulting with the parliamentary party is well overdue. The difficulties in this area were well-acknowledged during the coalition years; May then faced an almost impossible task of party management.
Greg Hands MP has recently written on ConservativeHome that the next leader must sit down with the Chair of the 1922 Committee and find a new way forward, to make themselves more accountable, and to provide the leadership that the parliamentary party is seeking. He is far from alone in making that case and the new leader will need to be ready for the job.
By Dr Jim McConalogue, an academic consultant with research interests in British politics, parliamentary studies and European integration. His current article on British constitutional resettlement after Brexit features in The British Journal of Politics & International Relations.