Tory leadership contest: All-male bloodbath leaves two strong women standing
The Conservative Party used to oppose all-women shortlists, even when Labour used them successfully to boost the number of women in Parliament. Now Tory MPs have chosen a shortlist of two women to become party leader – and in nine weeks, Britain will have its second female prime minister.
The men can hardly complain. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson ended the political career of their friend David Cameron. Then Mr Gove killed his pal Boris’s hopes of becoming prime minister. Then Mr Johnson and his allies took their revenge on Mr Gove by refusing to support his leadership bid, and he has been eliminated. Fittingly, after this all-male bloodbath, two strong women are left standing: Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom now go into a ballot of the Tory party’s 125,000 members.
Ms May starts the three-month race as the clear favourite. Now that Mr Gove is out of it, his friend George Osborne may come off the fence and declare his support for Mrs May. The Chancellor’s backing would be significant, adding to a long list of Cabinet ministers who can attest to Ms May’s ability to operate under pressure at the highest level.
The decision by 199 of the 330 Conservative MPs to back Mrs May sends a strong signal to Tory members. Despite their public confidence, some May supporters are privately worried that she could be pipped at the post by the relatively untested Ms Leadsom. Tory leadership contests are never predictable. Both Kenneth Clarke and David Davis also topped the poll among MPs, but were defeated by Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron respectively in the decisive ballot of Tory members.
A month ago, few Tory MPs would have believed that neither Mr Osborne nor Boris would not feature in the next leadership election. Only a small number of the MPs now backing Ms May would have made her the favourite, or dreamt that they would be cheerleading for her. Events are moving at breakneck speed in the post-referendum world.
After six years as Home Secretary, Ms May offers experience and stability in turbulent times, and can portray her rival, who is not yet in the Cabinet, as a risk. Normally, Ms Leadsom’s “fresh start” pitch would be more suited to a party choosing a leader in opposition after losing an election. Many Tory MPs would welcome the continuity and certainty offered by Mrs May at a time when the party is in power but the Government looks rudderless after the Brexit vote.
But these are not normal times, and Tory members may take a different view. Mrs May is the Tory establishment candidate. And Ms Leadsom could benefit from the anti-establishment feeling that helped Nicola Sturgeon virtually wipe out Labour north the border; Jeremy Corbyn become Labour leader and the Leave camp win the EU referendum (as well as boosting the prospects of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States presidential race).
The fact that Ms Leadsom campaigned effectively for Leave will undoubtedly help her, as a majority of Tory members backed quitting the EU. But Ms May’s allies believe that her qualified support for EU membership will not damage her chances as much as we might expect. They hope party members decide not to prolong the Leave/Remain divide and judge that the party has a better chance of coming together with an experienced, trusted hand on the tiller.
The May camp also hopes that Tory members look at the dangerous, damaging gulf between Labour’s pro-Corbyn members and its anti-Corbyn MPs, and decide that the Home Secretary is best-placed to enjoy the confidence of both parts of the Conservative Party.