Gove or May as Tory leader? No, Boris is still the grassroots’ favourite – and by a country mile, Telegraph, 2 August 2013

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So welcome to the silly season – sun, sea, sand, and speculation.

But when three of the best-informed political commentators around all write columns on the same theme in the same week talking about pretty much the same thing, we should probably sit up and pay attention.

Matthew d’Ancona kicked things off with a column on Boris Johnson’s still burning ambition to be Prime Minister, should David Cameron have to step down soon after the next general election.

The Spectator’s James Forsyth, who like d’Ancona believes that “a Boris-free contest” would only mean that “the eventual winner would be dogged by doubts as to his or her legitimacy and speculation about what the blond one would do next”, goes on to suggest that, if it really is true that Michael Gove isn’t interested in taking over from Cameron, then George Osborne (whose reputation is recovering along with the economy) “might be better placed in this leadership marathon than the pundits realise”. That said, he notes, “it is not the fellow Bullingdon boy who worries Boris, but the vicar’s daughter, Theresa [May].”

The Home Secretary’s chances are also talked of, if not up, by Paul Goodman, who as well as joining the debate about how Boris might or might not manage a leadership bid in or after 2015, also outlinesConservativeHome’s polling on who the Tory grassroots would like to see come after Cameron. Osborne didn’t really feature, but the gap between the front-runner, Johnson (on 21 per cent), and Gove, the supposed non-runner (on 20 per cent) was tiny, with both reasonably closely followed by May (on 16.5 per cent).

Our academic survey of the Tory rank-and-file, carried out for us byYouGov and funded by the McDougall Trust, paints a very different – and much clearer – picture. While it shows that six out of ten grassroots members believe David Cameron should resign should he fail to hang on to No 10 in 2015, it also suggests that there is in fact a much bigger gap between the various runners and riders.

If the 852 members we questioned are anything to go by, Boris Johnson is way out in front, with 38 per cent of first preferences – double the number given to Theresa May (18 per cent), who isn’t that far ahead of Michael Gove (on 13 per cent). The suggestion that George Osborne may be in with a chance is by no means far-fetched – but he will have to make up a lot of ground: just 3 per cent of party members gave him their first preference. That was less than the 8 per cent gained by Philip Hammond, who has also been reported as being “on manoeuvres”, although it was still better than the mere 1 per cent afforded to the apparently ambitious Adam Afriyie.

Because we asked our members a wide range of questions about their backgrounds and their views, we can also say something about where the various runners and riders draw their support from. Demographically there are few surprises. Boris not only goes down particularly well in London, but does better than the rest among younger members – although, given the fact that most of the membership is getting on a bit, this is probably no great cause for celebration.

For her part, Theresa May – perhaps predictably – picks up disproportionate support among the party’s female members, although, again, this shouldn’t set the Champagne corks popping too soon, since (according to our figures anyway) women make up only a third of the membership. By the same token, the fact that May draws rather more support from the one in five of the party’s membership that isn’t thoroughly middle-class probably won’t do her much good either. That said, she might take some comfort from the fact that, while her support among Telegraph readers is far less convincing than that accorded to their stand-out favourites, Johnson and Gove, she beats them hands down when it comes to readers of the Mail – the very paper with whom she chose this week to share the story of her “shocking illness”. Even better, all this hints at the possibility that a May-led Tory party may attract more support among women and the electorally-precious C2s.

Michael Gove, on the other hand, appears on our figures to be very much a man for the solidly middle-class, whereas George Osborne actually does much better than most (including May) among the party’s tiny band of working-class voters. Gove’s supporters are also more Right-wing than supporters of the other candidates, while Osborne’s – for all that he is the “Austerity Chancellor” – are more centrist with regard to both economic and social/cultural issues.

The fact that the Chancellor’s small band of supporters is drawn disproportionately from the more centrist and less well-heeled members of the Party could well be a problem for him since neither group is well represented in the rank-and-file. But his biggest challenge is that he does best among those members who see themselves as ideologically closest to David Cameron. If the PM chooses or is obliged to step down at the next election, the grassroots will almost certainly want someone as unlike him as possible. In which case – ideologically speaking (at least in terms of perception if not reality) – step forward Michael Gove, current darling (according to our figures anyway) of the rank-and-file Right.

But the man to beat – at least as far as the grassroots are concerned – remains, by a long chalk, Boris Johnson. Whether they ever get the chance to vote for him, of course, is another matter.



About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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