Monday, October 18, 2010

The Next Tory Leader

It may seem odd to be speculating on who the next Tory leader will be when the incumbent is probably the most successful Tory leader for the past decade and a half. Of all the party leaders, I’d say he’s the most secure. But, as Francis Urquhart once observed, “nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” Indeed, the sole certainty that a Prime Minister has on entering Number 10 Downing Street is that they will one day leave office. The same with party leaders.

So, when Cameron does stand down, or is forced out after an election loss, who will take over from him? Looking at the most high-profile Tories, it is difficult to see any of those vying for the top job. George Osborne is no Gordon Brown – he doesn’t seem to have the burning desire to follow his friend into Number 10. Hague is popular with the people, but the recent scandal about his special assistant may have tainted his view of frontline politics and therefore his desire to be leader (again). Who else? Gove? Hardly. Theresa May? Competent, but hardly inspirational. On the backbenches you have David Davis, but he is a restless, impetuous soul who may not be the right sort of personality to lead his party successfully. Perhaps Boris might return to the Commons – he’d be a popular choice with the people, but again he’s a bit of a renegade and his inability to keep his wedding tackle in his pants. As a President, I think Johnson would work. As a leader of a party in a parliamentary democracy and a potential Prime Minister, well, I don’t think BoJo would work so well.

So none of the most high-profile Tories – but then again that is hardly surprising. Cameron will be in power for at least five years, possibly even ten – and given the propensity of all of the main parties to choose leaders with limited parliamentary experience, the next Tory leader may only just have been elected to the Commons – or may be elected next time.

Besides, before the next leader is chosen, something is going to have to happen about ideology in the Conservative party. Cameron’s project of making the Tory party electable again was largely achieved through jettisoning ideology in favour of neutral, non-threatening platitudes. And it worked on some levels – the Tories are back in government. But the problem with being in government – particularly a government facing as many problems as the Con-Dems – is that you do need some sort of ideology to guide you as you govern. Cameron’s beliefs will be exposed by the way in which he governs.

And we’ve already seen the faint glimmerings of that in the concept of the Big Society. Quite what it means remains something of a mystery, but I can’t help but feel that we are witnessing a revival in Tory paternalism. What Cameron is isn’t quite clear, but what he isn’t is a Thatcherite. Which is fine – but there are others in the party who are.

Right now we are in a position where order in the Tory party is maintained by the relative novelty of being back in power. People get behind Cameron not necessarily believe in what he says and what he stands for, but because not seeing eye-to-eye with a Tory PM is better than powerlessly disagreeing with a Labour PM. But that won’t last. The longer they stay in power – and an outright win at the next election – the less the novelty of power will create unity. So in five years time, or in ten years – when Cameron goes – it may be less about personalities and relative visibility, and more about what factions exist at the time, how powerful they are, and who is leading them.

It is too early, far too early to be able to guess who will be the next Tory leader. However I reckon we can make a prediction about the nature of the next Tory leadership contest. When Cameron was elected, it was about finding someone who can win. Next time, it will be about defining what the party actually stands for – or rather about which ideological faction is going to take it into the future.

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