Tuesday, July 05, 2016
The Tories are in a better position than the Labour party as they will undoubtedly quickly unite behind a new leader come September. The question is, who will that leader be and what does it mean for British politics? At a time when the Labour party is incapable of providing any clear opposition and the Liberal Democrats remain an irrelevance, the choice of Tory leader is crucial for the country. Sadly, the country doesn't choose. A few thousand Tory activists do.
Forget the MP tallies in the parliamentary vote for the moment. That they will put Theresa May through with a substantial - even overwhelming - majority supporting her seems likely (at the moment - though the last week has emphasised the unpredictable nature of politics). Andrea Leadsom looks well set to be her competitor in the run-off amongst party activists.
And here's the thing. Leadsom may be relatively new to the party, while May has racked up immense service in the voluntary party even before she went into parliament. But if you have a look at the way the wind is blowing the activists think they could have found their new Thatcher, and it's not the estimable Mrs. May.
The Conservative Home site remains a useful - though admittedly not infallible - bell-weather inidcator of Tory grassroots opinion. While the focus of the media commentariat is still on the vote amongst Tory MPs, the key vote, the activist vote, is being monitored by Conservative Home. It shows a serious movement in Andrea Leadsom's favour, as she edges past Theresa May.
A previous poll from the ConHome panel showed Michael Gove as the firm favourite a mere few weeks ago, and even after his dire week he is still holding up well in third place. The message for the May faction, however, is that they are nowhere near victory in this race. While she may seem to the non-Conservative onlooker to embody many of the characteristics of a classic Tory leader - strong on national security and law and order, fiscally sound, compassionate but only to a degree, socially pretty conservative in most areas - she has a serious weakness as far as the grassroots vote is concerned. Two, actually.
The most serious is that, for all her strengths of character and her low profile in the EU campaign, she is a Remainer. Yes, she has announced that Brexit is it, Brexit is the way. But the Tory grassroots were implacably for Brexit over many years. Their euro-scepticism stymied the frequent attempts of the Tories' most popular national politician, Ken Clarke, to become leader. Their implicit support for the regular bouts of euro-sceptic rebellion undermined John Major and gave rise to David Cameron's catastrophic referendum decision. They are socially very conservative and tend to a more isolationist global outlook. And they want someone who reflects their image. By endorsing the EU, Theresa May has significantly distorted that comforting reflection.
Second, no matter how quietly (again), Theresa May did support gay marriage. In the metropolitan, EU supporting part of Britain that is a good thing. In the Conservative Party, it is a cause of real suspicion. Before the referendum, nothing alienated David Cameron more from his own party members than his promotion of gay marriage, and it remains significant that he chooses that as one of his signature achievements.
If Theresa May had been facing off a candidate with similar socially liberal tendencies this might not have mattered. Her support for the EU would still be a stumbling block, but against a Johnson or a Gove there is a chance that her steadier personality and the perception that she is a tough defender of British interests might still have pulled her through.
But May won't be against either of those men. She will be against a woman who reminds the Tory electorate more than she does herself of their most potent icon. Margaret Thatcher.
Leadsom is a grassroots member's dream. They love the fact that she has been "in finance" for over 25 years since nothing screeches success to Tory members more than the ability to make a killing over a long period in the financial markets. They fully embrace her euro-scepticism, and as the key male leaders of that campaign fall like dominoes, Leadsom's own over-rated role becomes ever more important. She was a true believer when it still looked like a lost cause. And she opposed gay marriage. She will face hostile questioning from a metropolitan media about that, and all the people on social media who aren't members of the Tory party may excoriate her for it, but it is a significant point of unspoken attraction for Tory members. If homosexual attraction used to be the love that dare not speak its name, genuine hostility towards gay people is the attitude that dare not speak its name within the Tory party.
I would rate Leadsom's chances, over a summer campaign, of gaining a majority of the small Tory grassroots vote as being much better than average. This race may look like May's to lose, but her star rose only recently, benefitted from Westminster shenanigans, and could dip again as the brighter meteorite of a more clearly Thatcherite lady takes centre stage.
Forget Westminster. Like the referendum before it, this race is decided amongst ordinary people who have never been plugged in to the Westminster conversation.