Conservative Leadership Elections: Why the Underdogs Bark Loudest

The last ‘favourite’ to win the Conservative Party leadership was arguably more than 60 years ago, when in 1955 Anthony Eden took over from Churchill as PM.

Since then, under three different forms of leadership contest, those deemed to be front-runners in Conservative leadership contests have found themselves beaten by dark horses, or even complete unknowns. Rab Butler in 1957 and 1963, Reggie Maudling in 1965, Edward Heath (seeking re-election) in 1975, Michael Heseltine in 1990, Ken Clarke in 1997, Michael Portillo in 2001, and David Davis in 2005: all found this to their cost. Instead Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Hume ‘emerged’ as PMs; Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and William Hague were elected by the Party’s MPs; and Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron won through after a vote first by their MPs then of the Party’s full membership.

Given this historical perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that the bookies’ post-Brexit favourite in 2016, Boris Johnson, did not even make it to the starting gate.

Why should there be this long-running trend for the underdog? Especially as it has continued despite there being three different systems used by the Party for selecting its leaders over that 60-year period?

The reason seems to be that the Conservative Party generally votes primarily against perceived ideology or faults of their leadership contenders. This works against those who have spent longer in politics, having a track record that is open to scrutiny and contest, as well as having had time to simply make enemies.

The current system of leadership election, if anything, exacerbates that tendency. With MPs voting in a series of ‘devil take the hindmost’ ballots, MPs vote to knock out candidates to leave the full membership with an option of just two. The MPs are, in effect, vetting the candidates for the membership, weeding out those deemed unsuitable, for whatever reasons.

This might be expected to prevent the more radical candidates from being successful, although the election of David Cameron shows that is not necessarily the case. He won in 2005 not just because he was the unknown with no record up for scrutiny, but because the Party generally knew it needed to reform if it was to be electable and he was that fresh face.

Where does that leave us in 2016?

With Boris Johnson’s withdrawal, Home Secretary Theresa May must now be seen as the favourite, drawing heavy early support from Conservative MPs. Despite having supported Remain in the referendum, she deliberately did not take a visible campaigning role. She is seen as the steady pair of hands and seems, barring a last minute revelation, almost certain to make the final two having nearly a hundred supporters declared as of July 2nd.

Michael Gove can also play the experience card, currently as Justice Secretary and as both a former Education Secretary and Chief Whip. Gove was a major player in the Leave campaign, but he will also push his reformist tendencies and has already set out a series of policy changes he wants to see implemented. However, given his role in Boris’ exit (Borexit) from the leadership contest, it is questionable whether the Party membership would back him. Ardent Leave MPs, and those who had wanted to back Boris, will probably therefore look to throw their support behind another candidate.

Liam Fox, too, can point to experience, having a longer Parliamentary career than either Gove or May. He is a long-term Eurosceptic and has support on the Right of the Party more generally, and so might be expected to pick up a large number of Leave MPs. However, his term as Defence Secretary ended abruptly and many might not feel confident in his leadership. His candidacy might be seen more as a play to ensure he gets a senior Cabinet position after the election.

Then come the underdogs; those with less experience and virtually unknown to the public.

Stephen Crabb was elected in 2005, has served as Welsh Secretary and was only recently made Work and Pensions Secretary. He has a back story that is helpful for a Tory: being brought up on a council estate and a self-made man. He is young, easy going and his agenda is very much about social justice, reforming the Party’s image and reaching out to parts of the electorate the Conservative Party has not been able to reach for some years. However, Crabb sided with the Remain campaign, and this will hamper him.

And then there is Andrea Leadsom, an MP only since 2010. A former banker who performed well for the Leave campaign during the referendum, she has no Cabinet-level experience but has served as both Energy and Treasury Minister. She is gaining support from those MPs and members who are concerned Brexit might not actually be implemented, offering them a promise of no turning back, as well as a hard line on ending freedom of movement. She is therefore likely to pick up a lot of Boris Johnson’s hitherto supporters.

The first round of voting on Tuesday 5th July will see one MP knocked out. Two subsequent rounds are due on 7th and 12th July to whittle the candidates down to two. However, it is possible that if two candidates are well ahead after the first ballot, the remaining two might simply withdraw and allow those who polled highest to go straight through to the membership ballot.

There is also possibility that if one candidate is so far ahead of all the others after the first ballot, all remaining candidates would withdraw in a show of unity. However, that would mean the membership would not get a vote, and that is unlikely to go down well. People look back to Gordon Brown’s ‘coronation’ taking over from Tony Blair and the way not having to fight a leadership battle allowed his opponents to then attack him subsequently. It will be in the new PM’s favour, whoever it is, that they fought and won a ballot of the whole Party membership.

Moreover, given the referendum ballot, there is a sense that at least one of the candidates going through to the membership must be a Leave supporter. Given that Theresa May seems almost certain to make the final two, she must fight a run-off battle against a Leaver if she is to have legitimacy within the Party.

The question is, who will she run up against in the final two?

It is possible Gove could just scrape through, although this is looking less and less likely. So, to return to the start of this article, history tells us to look to the underdog. And, of Crabb and Leadsom, only Leadsom backed the Leave campaign, leaving her in pole position.

And in a run-off between May and Leadsom? It would probably be close and depend on the campaigns both candidates ran. May would clearly be the favourite but, if precedent is anything to go by, that is not a comfortable position to be in. May might break the favourite’s duck, but do not bet against Andrea Leadsom.

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