The Conservatives After Cameron

Apparently running the Home Office is no longer the political kiss of death that it once was. ConservativeHome highlights an interesting and worrying trend in the sentiments of the party base – a strong, and growing, preference for Theresa May to be the next Conservative Party leader after David Cameron:

Last month, the Home Secretary squeaked it, displacing Boris Johnson from the top of the poll by 22.7 per cent to 22.6 per cent – in other words, there was one vote in it out of some 800 responses.

This month, she does so again, by 23 per cent to 22 per cent – or, if you prefer, by a margin of three votes.  Michael Gove’s rating is down from 17 per cent to 14 per cent; William Hague’s is up from 10 per cent to the same total, 14 per cent.

What’s striking about this month’s result is that the gap between May and Boris is more or less unchanged – but the survey got roughly 200 more replies.

Looking back over the record of previous Home Secretaries, I was recently arguing with a friend about whether the office of Home Secretary tends to naturally attract the authoritarians and those casually dismissive of civil liberties from within their parties, or whether working in the Home Office makes a person that way, and that even an ardent libertarian would come out of the Home Office singing the praises of indefinite detention without charge, bulk data collection and citizenship revocation without criminal conviction. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the case of Theresa May, an uninspiring record prior to government has only been tarnished further since 2010.

The only thing more worrying about this preference for Theresa May is that her chief threat is the implausible Boris Johnson. The Mayor of London’s ability to say what he actually thinks, bypassing the usual politician’s filter, is admirable and refreshing in a high profile political figure. But he has a tendency toward the ridiculous, harms London’s competitiveness by his intransigence on the expansion of Heathrow airport, and is weak on free speech issues. His shortcomings exceed his no-nonsense attitude and his love of Latin.

By contrast, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove – perhaps the torchbearer for the more libertarian, small government / maximum personal liberty wing of the Tory party – languishes in third place, tied with William Hague.

Two very different visions for government.
Two very different visions for government.

The bright side, as Benedict Brogan points out in his Morning Briefing, is that Theresa May’s popularity with the party base is not matched by equal enthusiasm in the parliamentary party. Since the leadership election rules in the Conservative party give MPs the job of whittling down the field to the final two candidates who stand before the entire party membership, it is possible that May could fall at the first hurdle, perhaps opening the way for someone who does not quite so closely adhere to the authoritarian mould of New Labour.

Talk of the next Conservative leader may be very premature – Cameron could well win a second term in 2015, either to govern as a majority Tory administration (which would be a real test of his principles – no longer would he have the fallback excuse of placating LibDem coalition partners) or in another coalition. And of course the 2015 general election and upcoming European elections this year will change the electoral landscape further still. But it is disconcerting to note that as we stand, after reviewing the performance of all the Conservative ministers in government and comparing their rhetoric to their actions, a substantial part of the Tory base believes that Theresa May represents the best way forward.

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