James Frayne: Tory leadership hopefuls should move fast to seize the crown
If Boris Johnson or David Davis want to be the next Tory leader, they need to quickly do three things.
Despite the near-universal calls from the Conservative Parliamentary Party to support Theresa May’s position, in truth there is a frenzy of quiet plotting and positioning going on. The only thing stopping it bursting out into the open is the fear candidates have of being blamed for bringing down May and plunging the party into another general election before it’s ready to fight one. Being accused of letting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street is not something people are prepared to risk.
While candidates’ concerns are reasonable, those with an eye of No 10 need to keep something in mind: if they don’t move soon, they’ll end up taking power and potentially fighting another election just as the country heads into a period of turbulence as we begin to leave the EU properly.
With Theresa May in such a weak position, it’s possible that the threat of economic pain will bring the government down – and in turn reduce the chances of a Conservative victory. Such circumstances will be difficult for any candidate. They will be particularly difficult for any of those linked in the public mind with the Brexit campaign.
That’s not to say that Brexit will ultimately turn out to be a bad thing. On the contrary, I believe that Britain should be a more prosperous, safer and happier place outside the EU. But there is bound to be short-term pain – with a row over Britain’s exit bill, the possibility of talks stalling and also the likelihood of major companies moving some of their operations outside of Britain with the loss of jobs. Those seeking power should therefore think about taking it sooner rather than later, so that they’re safely in Downing Street before such difficult times arrive.
Will the next prime minister be able to weather the storm at all? While it will be difficult, even with a majority, it’s possible that the relative fortunes of Britain and the EU will look different in the not-too-distant future.
As talks start, let’s be honest, Britain looks like a country in chaos and Europe looks like an area of stability. With Macron in place in Paris, Merkel stable in Berlin and populism seen off in Holland, confidence in Europe is high. It’s not surprising that the EU feels it can dig in and make Britain talk about exit payments before we start a discussion on trade. However, the confidence EU leaders now project could well be challenged soon.
Shortly before the election, in a basement room of a London Club, a group of former special advisers from the main parties, former civil servants, political campaigners, journalists and businesspeople got together to consider the challenges facing the Government as it went about its Brexit negotiations. The group, pulled together by my agency, Public First, and the UCL-based Institute for Strategy, Security & Resilience, took part in a war game to consider how a series of events might play out across Europe.
Having initially raised the prospect of severe turbulence for Britain, the group concluded that there were enough challenges ahead for the EU that they might feel that an agreement with Britain was very much in their interests. Two possible events stood out for the group: firstly, the chance of a major economic and political crisis caused by the election of anti-EU parties to the Italian Parliament - and their likely outright rejection of any financial controls being placed on them; and secondly, the chance of further waves of migration into the EU, via Turkey. In both circumstances, discussions suggested, Britain’s economic and military power would come in extremely handy for the EU. And the same would be true if Russia started sabre rattling on the Eastern borders of the EU.
Will such events come about? Time will tell. But just as it’s easy to look at Britain’s short-term future as being a turbulent one, so it’s easy to look at the EU’s and conclude very much the same thing. If the next British prime minister can weather the early storm, it’s reasonable to assume he or she will be able to do constructive business with the EU in a year or two.
Which takes us back to the Conservatives’ prospective leadership candidates. Theresa May is weak and could go at any moment, so they need to do three things. Firstly, encourage the creation of a very serious review into what went wrong for the party at the last election so that mistakes in the message and machine can be dealt with; secondly, encourage the party to create a policy platform ruthlessly focused on generating popularity across the country to raise the party’s standing in the polls; and thirdly, secure enough political support that they can ideally walk into Downing Street uncontested. A messy leadership campaign isn’t in anyone's interests.
At the moment, the Government seems paralysed and the Conservative Party with it. The party and its leadership candidates need to be ready to take swift action. Waiting for Corbyn to make his next move – or indeed for greater clarity in the political and economic climate – could see them overtaken by events.
Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images.