Westminster is at its fastest-moving and most unstable for years. Portcullis House and the tea rooms are buzzing with MPs discussing the demise of their leader and who they’ll back in the contest to replace him: and that goes for both main parties, though of course the golden rule of politics still applies, which is that no matter how colossal the Tory mess is, Labour’s will always be gargantuan in comparison.
Today the Conservatives decided to move back the date by which their leader must be confirmed to 9 September, which will come as a relief to those Tories who were grumbling about being hauled back from the Mediterranean a week early. The consensus in the party is that the two frontrunners in the leadership contest are Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Both have significant operations around them. May has supporters in the Whips’ Office, while Boris has Lynton Crosby signed up to advise him, and Michael Gove working on his behalf to charm MPs from across the party. So far, Gove has been pretty successful. This afternoon, Boris has bagged Dominic Raab, who will be handy in Brexit negotiations, and Nicholas Soames, who was a vociferous campaigner for Remain, and whose support will help the former Mayor claim that he is the one able to bring the party back together while delivering the will of the British people.
Though Boris is the politician who gets stopped in the street for selfies, the surveys of members and voters suggest that he will still have to fight to win the contest. ConHome has just published its survey of readers which puts May on 29 per cent and Johnson on 28 per cent. It is significant that the ConHome survey has 56 per cent of its respondents backing candidates who supported the Leave campaign. Meanwhile this morning’s Times had May on 31 per cent among Conservative voters, and Johnson on 24 per cent. Some Tories claim that there is resentment building against Boris from members who feel that he wasn’t really sincerely in favour of Brexit, but has caused a colossal mess, though his supporters point out that the Uxbridge MP at least put his heart and soul into the Leave campaign, whereas the Home Secretary practically went into hiding after declaring for Remain.
But other candidates have today emerged. Stephen Crabb has declared his candidacy on a joint ‘blue collar’ ticket with Said Javid (and both the May and Johnson camps are spinning that he is doing better than expected so far). Jeremy Hunt seems to be running to make a point about a second referendum. Liam Fox may be trying to bleed votes away from Boris before dropping out to back Theresa May and John Baron is standing to ensure that the ‘referendum decision is honoured’. There is also a caucus of modernising Tory MPs led by George Freeman and Anne-Marie Trevelyan which plans to hold ‘One Nation hustings’ before coming out in favour of a candidate.
There seems to be little appetite for a leadership coronation of one candidate, even though this would limit the uncertainty for the financial markets. The problem, as so often in politics, is that people in the party aren’t getting along well enough to be able to agree on one candidate and there are too many egos that are just a bit too big. But as per the golden rule, Labour has a bigger problem with a stubborn ego…