29 May 2019

The leadership question

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This summer, the Conservatives will make history. Assuming the embryonic Tory leadership contest goes the distance, it will be the first time a party membership has had the privilege of picking the country’s Prime Minister.

The historic contest will end with a new leader in a historically difficult position: a country in the midst of arguably the biggest peacetime political crisis in living memory and a party that has just registered its worst performance in a national vote since 1832.

At a time when the country badly needs a political and economic reboot, how the Conservatives choose their next leader matters.

So far, we’ve been treated to Rory Stewart’s tour of the nation’s markets and botanical gardens, and an unedifying split between the ‘fuck business’ and ‘fuck “fuck business”’ camps.

Let’s hope things improve.

If Conservative members are going to make an informed decision, there are three things they need to hear from the candidates.

The first, of course, is their plan for Brexit. By plan, I mean a viable course of action, rather than a slogan or empty promise. It is not enough to reaffirm that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. Or to simply insist that you could get a better deal than Theresa May.

Promising that Britain will leave the EU by the end of October, deal or no deal, might prove to be a necessary condition for a serious leadership bid. But it shouldn’t be a sufficient one. Candidates will need to explain how they plan to maintain the confidence of the House of Common whilst pursuing that goal. This is the Catch 22 which the next Prime Minister will have to grapple with immediately. On ConservativeHome, Dan Hannan, one of the party’s four surviving MEPs, put it neatly: ‘We can’t face the electorate before leaving the EU. But we might not be able to leave the EU without an election.’

Nor can the Brexit conversation be limited to what should happen between now and October 31. Delivering Brexit matters, but so do the candidates’ plans for capitalising on the opportunities and mitigating the downsides created by Britain’s departure – deal or no deal – from the EU.

Those who back no deal should explain what they would do with the added negotiating leverage that they claim such a move would entail. Those who would choose an extension over no deal must explain what they would do with the extra time.

Of course, the leadership contest must be about more than Brexit. Candidates must give the party, and the country, a political vision that extends beyond backstops and FTAs.

During her time in Number Ten, Theresa May was consumed by her attempt to untangle Britain from the EU to the exclusion of all else. If the same is true of the next Prime Minister, the Conservative Party is doomed to fail next time it faces the voters, whether that is in three months or three years. And so candidates need to spell out a domestic agenda. What is the Conservative answer to the threat posed by a Labour party run by the far-left? What are the most pressing issues that the country faces? And how are they best solved?

Third, and perhaps most important, is the need for the winning candidate to combine his or her Brexit plans and domestic agenda to form something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Conservative party – and the country – is crying out for someone who can lift the fog and deliver a vision of Britain after Brexit that people want to get behind. That is easier said than done. Yet it is hard to see how the next Prime Minister can succeed without rising above the factionalism and division that has so many so gloomy.

If this sounds like a lot to ask of the candidates, that’s because it is. But then this is a fraught moment in British history, and anyone who thinks they are the person for the job should be in no doubt about the scale of the challenge they face.

Here at CapX we want to play our part by offering space for the substantive debate we so badly need.

We won’t be endorsing a specific candidate. Instead, we’ll be running articles from MPs explaining which of their colleagues they are backing, and why. Our contributors will be scrutinising candidates’ plans on Brexit, weighing the merits of their ideas for the country and bringing you the latest on the state of the race.

Throughout the process we hope to encourage a contest that goes deeper than personality politics and internecine feuds, and instead tackles the issues that will decide Britain’s future. If you want to be part of that conversation, get in touch.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.