To win the Conservative leadership – and quite probably the office of Prime Minister – the successful candidate is assumed to need three things.
1) Sufficient support to get into the final two
A third of MPs (105) would guarantee this. In practice around 80-90 is likely to be enough, but going into the final two a long way behind, as Andrea Leadsom did (199 – 84) could prove a problem. Ideally a candidate would be able to reach across the Remain-Leave split and attract backing from both camps: despite the turbulent times and vitriol there is still a desire to pull the party back together. Theresa May did this as a Remainer; Michael Gove looks best placed to do this from the other side.
However, it is this hurdle that is likely to be insurmountable for Boris Johnson, and of course Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has already said he’s not standing. The same probably applies to assorted other Brexiteers such as Geoffrey Cox, David Davis and Priti Patel.
Dominic Raab is the most interesting proposition here: if the ERG intend to run a “primary” he might very well be their candidate, but that could prove a double-edged sword.
2) Sufficient popularity with the membership who vote on that final two
I would take the surveys of ConHome and others with a pinch of salt as they tend to capture the most engaged members, and those who are most motivated to respond at any given time. I would also treat Leave.EU’s claims of infiltration with considerable caution – clearly some ex-UKIP members have joined (many of them are ex-ex-Conservative as well!) but – in my experience – they are a small minority.
But nevertheless the membership is clearly more Eurosceptic than ever and that would make this hurdle insurmountable for the likes of Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond – which is why they are more likely to trade influence amongst MPs than run themselves.
The membership may be willing to consider Remainers who have embraced Brexit (as with May), but that may be subject to the UK having actually left. This is clearly the strategy of front-runners like Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid.
3) Sufficient Cabinet experience
Historically, only those occupying the other three great Offices of State (Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary) have ascended directly to Prime Minister, which is further good news for Javid and Hunt. Michael Gove could be considered papabile on this basis too, given his three Cabinet roles and Parliamentary role as a Government spokesman, such as in the No Confidence debate.
It is, however, this third assumption that I would like to challenge here. Remember that Andrea Leadsom made the final two after less than a year in Cabinet, and of course we now have plenty of other recent examples of inexperienced candidates coming forward, both domestically (Corbyn) and transatlantically (Obama and Trump). These candidacies have also been very profitable betting propositions…
The three “classes” of Tory MP
The 313 Conservative MPs can be split into approximate thirds. The most experienced 109 of them all served in Opposition. The next 106 were first elected on 6th May 2010: many of these are mentioned above and a number of others (Matt Hancock, Penny Mordaunt, Rory Stewart, Liz Truss) are also potential credible runners.
However I would like to focus on the 98 MPs elected in 2014 or later. Collectively they are naturally a younger group, though as varied as ever in their politics. Many of the 2015 class might have expected promotion after the 2017 General Election, only to find that Mrs May’s lack of room for manoeuvre delayed their career progression.
Three possible “new generation” candidates
Amongst this group there are three clear potential candidates who have impressed both me and the markets: Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer and James Cleverly. All of them have military service in their background, and in the interests of disclosure I should say that I have backed them all at various times (though to different stakes).
Tugendhat himself has made the case I am making – that the party should consider a leader from his generation – in an article for the Spectator last September. He saw off Crispin Blunt to assume the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in a sign of the power of younger MPs. However, as a Remainer he is likely to fall foul of point (2) above and indeed ruled himself out last week (though Betfair is slightly sceptical about that!) His influence would be a very welcome support for whoever does end up representing the “new generation”.
Mercer is very well regarded by the rank-and-file membership (though he too voted Remain) and has been speaking at a number of Associations across the country. However I think he is quite likely to fall foul of point (1): though his ability to communicate directly with the public is admired amongst his colleagues, he frequently criticises the party to a degree that may make it difficult for them to support him, even if they agree with his analysis. In some ways he is the mirror image of Heidi Allen: they both have an anti-politics approach which goes down well with the wider public, but both have described their decision to join the Party in very transactional terms, which leads members to question their loyalty to the institution.
Which brings me to my pick, James Cleverly. A former member of the London Assembly, where he served as leader of the Conservative group, he has most recently been Deputy Chairman of the Party, and has now been promoted to ministerial office in DExEU. He also campaigned for and voted Leave in the referendum. Cleverly has frequently been a media spokesman for the party and his willingness to take on the opposition in the largely hostile environment of Twitter also goes down very well with activists. My judgement is that he is best placed amongst this new generation to clear the twin hurdles of Parliamentary and membership support.
Clearly at prices between 25/1 and 50/1 this is a speculative bet, and any leadership bid that he does make might be seen as speculative too: maybe as much about making a point as expecting to win. The front-rank Cabinet ministers are still the most likely winners. But in today’s febrile environment things can change rapidly, and those not as associated with the past can have a substantial advantage.
Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election in 2017.