As MP for the constituency which covers Newmarket, health secretary Matt Hancock will have met a few bookmakers in his time. He has even won a horse race himself, of amateur jockeys in a charity event. He will know the Conservative leadership is the sort of open race with appetising prices – not least the 10-1 which William Hill is today offering on him. I have never met Mr Hancock, and can’t say I even particularly like him, but I am sorely tempted to have a flutter.
Why? Because Conservative leadership contests, for all their drama, are pretty easy to read. The winner is almost invariably the credible candidate who, at the time of the election, has succeeded in offending the fewest number of Conservatives. Who held negative feelings towards John Major in 1990, or William Hague in 1997? Iain Duncan Smith, perhaps, had ruffled feathers by rebelling on Maastricht, yet still in 2001 he inspired fewer negative feelings than Kenneth Clarke or Michael Portillo. Michael Howard was anointed rather than elected in 2003 and so doesn’t count. David Cameron was relatively unknown when elected in 2005 – a typical beneficiary of the ‘fewest enemies’ rule. In 2016, Theresa May was the candidate who had been least tainted by the EU referendum.
So where does that leave the punter looking down the list of this year’s runners and riders? Michael Gove, current frontrunner at 5/2, can be written off as having been a prominent Brexiteer – as well as having stabbed Boris in the back in 2016. Boris himself, ditto, can be eliminated for his role in the referendum, as well as having too many enemies for all sorts of reasons. He is popular among grassroots Conservatives, but that requires him to make it onto the final shortlist of two – a task in which he is bound to falter. Jeremy Hunt (6/1) has fewer enemies than most, yet insiders paint a picture of a man who does not carry the Cabinet with him when he speaks – notably the other day when he suggested delaying the third vote on May’s deal to the very day before we are due to crash out of the EU with no deal. David Lidington (7/1) is surely not a credible candidate to win a leadership election – only to take over as a caretaker if Theresa May walked out on the job. Dominic Raab (8/1) resigned as Brexit secretary to oppose May’s deal – the Conservative leadership has never in modern times fallen to a quitter. A few months ago, Sajid Javid (9/1) would have seemed a shoe-in, but he has offended too many liberal-minded Conservatives with his reaction to the migrant crossing and Shamima Begum affair.
Lower down the list is a mixture of possible future contenders for whom the contest will come too soon (Johnny Mercer, Tom Tugendhat, Rory Stewart), candidates who have blotted their copybook by having to resign (Amber Rudd, Priti Patel), those who are seen as overly-hard Brexiteers (Penny Mordaunt) and fantasy candidates who have said they won’t stand, have never held ministerial office and are only on the list because they have high public recognition (Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ruth Davidson). Andrea Leadsom has ruled out her chances by withdrawing last time round and Gavin Williamson must have set a record for offending the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time in the cabinet.
That leaves Matt Hancock. Has anyone ever been offended by him? True, he upset a few people by retweeting (accidentally, he said) a poem which suggested the Labour party was ‘full of queers’. As with any health secretary he has made enemies in the NHS – he has been accused of undermining traditional GP practices by promoting the health app Babylon, and was criticised last week for talking up commercial genetic testing, which some doctors see as liable to give false information on an individual’s chances of contracting certain diseases. But those are minor matters when it comes to a Conservative leadership contest. He, of all credible candidates, will be able to stand up at hustings and inspire the fewest negative feelings. Which is why, I sense, he is the best bet for your tenner.