‘Think you know who will be the next PM? Think again . . . and again’, Times, 11 July 2017

A year ago this week, Theresa May became prime minister. She may not last much longer. Her authority is not so much seeping away as haemorrhaging. Her credibility (and some say her confidence) is shot. Potential successors are being touted in the media and may even be “on manoeuvres”. The bookies have their favourites and so do the pundits. But maybe they should be more careful.

Tory leadership contests often throw up some surprises. A glance through the history books shows us Harold Macmillan robbing Rab Butler, Butler losing out again to Alec Douglas-Home, Margaret Thatcher beating Edward Heath and Willie Whitelaw, and John Major snatching it from Michael Heseltine. This is the party, too, remember, that gave the crown to William Hague and to Iain Duncan Smith rather than to Ken Clarke or Michael Portillo, and to David Cameron rather than David Davis.

It is also the party that gave the leadership to May – and without a contest. In hindsight, that decision might look like a bad one, yet it still seems somehow inevitable. In fact, few would have predicted it the year before.

Cast your mind back to the early summer of 2015. David Cameron had just won the general election and surprised everyone by doing so with an overall majority. Meanwhile, those of us working on the Economic and Social Research Council-funded party members project were busy conducting surveys of the Tory (and Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Ukip and SNP) grassroots.

One question we thought it was worth asking those Tory members was who they’d like to see replace Mr Cameron whenever he stepped down, leaving it up to them to come up with their own suggestions rather than pick from a pre-cooked list of names. The results show how difficult it is to pick a winner – and even who’ll have the brass neck to stand at all – before a contest actually kicks off.

They’re also a reminder, incidentally, to the know-alls among us that politics can be embarrassingly unpredictable. One of our 1,150 respondents, for instance, wrote “Stupid question: Cameron has just started a five-year term”. Anyone who’s convinced that there will be a contest this year before Christmas, or even the autumn, take note.

Ultimately, it’s the numbers that are most interesting, even if they, too, are something of a cautionary tale.

In our survey, conducted just a few weeks after the 2015 general election, a refreshingly honest “don’t know” came in second at 25 per cent, beaten by (you guessed it, no doubt) Boris Johnson on 29 per cent.

The eventual real-world victor, Theresa May, did only half as well as Boris, garnering 15 per cent support, putting her (rather deliciously) on exactly the same plane as her new best nemesis, George Osborne.

BoJo, Osbo and Mayo (too much?) were followed by Sajid Javid on just 4 per cent, which may mean the young-ish pretender did the right thing not to stand in the immediate post-Brexit contest. Mind you, precious little sign of a grassroots groundswell didn’t in the end put off Michael Gove, who was mentioned by just 2 per cent of our sample of members – the same level of support that went, incidentally, to David Davis.

Still, Mr Gove did way better than Andrea Leadsom. Britain’s best known matriarchal patriot may have thrown her hat into the ring alongside Mr Gove’s last year as the supposed leader of a putative grassroots insurgency (who can forget their showcase march on parliament?). But just a year before she’d been suggested as a replacement for Mr Cameron by precisely one solitary member. Just goes to show: you’ve got to be in it to, well, not win it exactly, but you know what I mean.

David Davis, of course, didn’t even stand last year. Best known back then as the bloke who blew it back in 2005 with busty beauties and a bad speech, he was at that stage languishing on the backbenches, his best days thought to be behind him. Now, in the wake of Mrs May’s fateful decision to bump-start his career last year, he’s apparently the favourite to replace her. Well, perhaps – but don’t bet on it.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/think-you-know-who-will-be-the-next-pm-think-again-and-again-mkk6v0023



About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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