What’s at stake in the Tory leadership contest?

Mark Findlay explores the issues

Writing about the Tory leadership contest is almost impossible as, as soon as you get started, everything changes. Battles in the Tory party are totally different from the war of attrition that Corbyn is facing in the Labour Party. As soon as a front-runner gets established, out come the long knives.

On Thursday June 30, a week after the referendum, with the Tories needing to stem post-Brexit chaos, events moved fast. Everyone expected at 9am that Boris Johnson would announce his leadership bid, there would be a series of runoffs eliminating other candidates, and then there would be a vote between him and Theresa May. Then Michael Gove suddenly announced his candidacy and things moved in an unaccepted way… It’s always worth reading the Telegraph when Tory watching.

It went something like this:
Sir Lynton Crosby, Boris Johnson’s campaign manager, was making final preparations for the formal announcement of Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership bid when his phone rang at 8.53 on Thursday morning.
“Hi Lynton, it’s Michael Gove here,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m running.”
“Running what?” Sir Lynton replied.
“I’m running for the leadership myself.”

According to the Telegraph the plotting had begun much earlier than that;

“On the first weekend of the referendum campaign, Mr Gove and Ms Vine were not getting down to work with Mr Johnson, but spending the weekend at Dorneywood, the Chancellor’s official country residence, as guests of George Osborne. Perhaps Mr Osborne, a keen chess player who loves few things as much as political plotting, was already making his own arrangements for what might happen if the Brexit vote went against him.”

George Osborne, evidently a very able plotter who is staying in the background for now, does appear to have had a role in events. Meanwhile Sarah Vine , Gove’s wife, and a journalist for the Daily Mail, was apparently advising her husband not to trust Johnson as a leaked email indicated

Back at his press conference, Johnson announced he wasn’t running, no doubt realising that he would have no chance with his erstwhile friend Gove (with whom he had previously apparently been joined at the hip on Brexit) standing against him.

Michael Heseltine, one of the last survivors of the Thatcher cabinet weighed in, to thoroughly trash Johnson:“… he’s like a general, who led his army to the sound of guns and at the site of the battlefield abandoned the field to the claims of his adjutant, who said he wasn’t up to the job in the first place. I have never seen someone so contemptible, so irresponsible a situation…. “

By the morning of Friday July 1, the knives were out for Gove himself. “Boris Johnson’s allies have accused Michael Gove of a ‘calculated plot’ to destroy the former London Mayor’s hopes of becoming Conservative leader by stealing his support in an act of ‘midnight treachery.’” Another heavyweight from the past, Ken Clarke has called for Gove to stand down. As of now, Gove is saying “I never thought I’d be in this position”

Venom in the Conservative party is now flowing; as another quote from the Telegraph makes clear: “Friends of the former mayor said that there was a “very deep pit reserved in hell” for Mr Gove as they alleged that the Justice Secretary had been plotting to stand as a candidate for months. George Osborne was named as a co-conspirator.”

The attacks on Gove have continued – with attempts to suggest that Cameron was also involved in the attacks on Johnson in this Telegraph article on July 3.

Apparently Johnson, previously lead Brexiteer, may now support Theresa May, known Remain supporter!

Johnson has nursed ambitions of being Tory leader and PM for a long time. He has tried to lose the comedian image, but I suspect for many Tory MPs he didn’t succeed. His policies have always blown with the wind. He wasn’t even clearly in favour of Brexit until the beginning of the year. Unlike Gove, he doesn’t have a clear position, and this in my opinion has affected his credibility. And with Tory MPs, credibility is nearly everything: Could he stand up at the dispatch box and deal with Corbyn? Could he win an election?

Many think that he (and Gove) were actually expecting the Leave campaign to lose narrowly, giving himself longer to establish his credentials as a future leader with Britain having a tweaked relationship with the EU. But when he found himself in the position of actually having to put forward policies to implement Brexit, he ran scared and it showed. The BBC also think that he had promised the same jobs to different people – offering the position of Chancellor to both Gove and Leadsom:
“In particular they claim he forgets a letter promising rising star Andrea Leadsom she can become chancellor as price for her support. Team Boris say this is nonsense, and Gove had already been promised this job. Team Gove say she could have had deputy prime minister. But for them it crystallises something.
Gove begins to think Boris is too cavalier and unfocused – an unguided missile.”

The contenders

So now we are off on a jolly Tory-go-round with Gove, who apparently everyone loves– except every single teacher. He requires little introduction because during his time at Education he was strongly criticised by all the teaching unions. He axed the “Building Schools for the Future” programme – and was criticised by a judicial review as a result. He showed up his own learning in June 2011, after he called for students to have “a rooting in the basic scientific principles” and by way of example assigned Lord Kelvin’s laws of thermodynamics to Sir Isaac Newton!.” He’s known for “socially liberal” views on same-sex marriage, race and social mobility, with harder Eurosceptic and neoconservative views on foreign affairs.

But following the episode with Johnson however, he appears to be “damaged goods”; not to be trusted, even by such an untrustworthy bunch as the Tory parliamentary party.

Lock-‘em-up Theresa May is without doubt the most credible candidate, which is likely to weigh heavily with Tory MPs. She has made few obvious mistakes and has a good chance of being the first female Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher.

She has a reputation for being comparatively moderate, but this article in the Independent shows she has a history of being “staunchly more conservative, more anti-immigration, and more isolationist than Boris”. It was she who in 2011 introduced new restrictions on overseas students newly graduating from taking employment in Britain. In 2012 she increased the minimum salary requirements for bringing spouses to £18.600, forcing many to leave the country in spite of being citizens, because they were low-paid and had a non-EU spouse.

In 2015, she brought in a £200 annual “immigrant health surcharge” for those in possession of work visas. Then, this year, she set the minimum salary for immigrants who have already lived here for 5 years to £35,000. Back in 2010, “she ensured that public bodies no longer had to actively try to reduce inequality.

May spent late April 2016 – the eleventh hour of the EU referendum campaign – saying that the UK should leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), contradicting other Tory MPs and forcing Downing Street to clarify that the Remain campaign was not pushing for this extreme measure. Other Tories came out to say that this opinion was untenable, since the ECHR is a prerequisite for membership in the EU.”

She says that she wouldn’t trigger article 50, the action required to start the clock ticking for the actual process of withdrawal from the EU, until she has ‘secured a better deal for Britain’

The same Telegraph article has Andrea Leadsom setting out her stall saying that she wants to trigger article 50 straight away and vows to become the new Margaret Thatcher. She seems to want to establish “clear blue water” between herself and May. When questioned she even refused to rule out having Farage on her negotiating team. She tries to make up for her comparatively recent arrival on the political stage with her “25 years of experience in financial services”, thereby bolstering her apparatchik credibility.

With the departure of Johnson and Gove under attack, her chances have improved, as the standard bearer for the Brexiteers. She is a junior minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, although she is a known opponent of wind farms. She attacked Mark Carney for his warnings that the economy would be destabilised if Britain voted to heave. She supports exit from the single market; “She believes in scrapping free movement and wants free trade negotiations with the rest of the world.”

“Leadsom shot to prominence during the referendum campaign. The energy minister is behind [Theresa] May in the pecking order but has a touch of Thatcher steel. A good showing could secure her the chancellorship,” said the Independent.

With Gove under attacks and Liam Fox being distinctly tainted, she now looks like the most credible Brexit candidate. Ian Duncan-Smith indicated his support for her On July 2. She is definitely to be watched and could well win the leadership election

Stephen Crabb was relatively unknown before Ian Duncan-Smith (IDS) resigned as Work and Pensions secretary and he took over. He is now in charge of cuts to benefits, harassment of disabled people and so on and hasn’t been associated with any softening of policy. Unlike most Tories, he grew up with a single mother on a council estate. He was educated at the Tasker Millward school; a private non-fee-paying school, criticised for continuing sexual education in line with Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28..He voted against same-sex marriage in 2013

Liam Fox is well-known and a nasty piece of work, a long-time Brexit campaigner. Previous to the Referendum campaign, he was always one of the lead anti-Europeans. His videos on Facebook all revolve around migration. The third one in, “Memories of Green”, attacks migrants for threatening green spaces (local authorities “ordered” to build housing for migrants will allegedly cover our green spaces; in fact local authorities build almost nothing and developers who are doing the building are mostly constructing homes for the wealthy at the expense of social housing). The video has a background of a bucolic village scene, to show off his supposed green credentials. Another repeats the lie about the £350 million supposedly paid to Brussels, then reverts to his favourite subject of open borders and migration. He’s been around a long time – he was elected MP for North Somerset in 1992 and held ministerial office in John Major’s 1992 government. He is using Facebook in his leadership campaign, while the entry about him on Wikipedia shows his views on LGBTQ issues:
‘While studying medicine at Glasgow University in the early 1980s, Fox resigned his position on the university’s Students Representative Council (SRC) in protest at the council passing a motion condemning the decision of the university’s Glasgow University Union (GUU) not to allow a gay students society to join the union. The SRC motion called both the union’s decision and the explanations given for it “bigoted”.’
And he defended his position thus “I’m actually quite liberal when it comes to sexual matters. I just don’t want the gays flaunting it in front of me, which is what they would do.”

He hasn’t been too careful about obeying parliamentary rules either, being paid by the Sri Lankan government for a junket…

Behind the divisions

So what lies behind all this? Behind all the sound and fury and backstabbing, the Tory party has a long history of division over Europe, reflecting old divisions in the British bourgeoisie. Historically the more “liberal”, one-nation Tories have supported links to Europe, and the more right-wing, Thatcherites supported separation. The right of the party (such as Liam Fox) were feeling marginalised as some of their support leaked to UKIP. But opportunism and the battle to succeed Cameron led to natural pro-Europeans like Johnson to join the Brexit campaign, supported by Gove who himself hasn’t always been a clear Brexiteer.[1]

The smart money has it that the Leavers weren’t planning to actually win. The Tory hierarchy, backed by big capital, was actually quite happy to remain in the EU with the small tweaks agreed by Cameron. Capital actually likes free movement of labour – it’s a source of workers that tends to flow when needed and ebbs when not. This together with the weakness of working class organisation means that wages and social benefits can be kept low.

Furthermore, separation from the single market could shut the City – the bankers, hedge-funds etc – out of Europe; just search for “passporting” on-line. I think they are unhappy with the result and will support anyone who will minimise the effects. It would be difficult, however for them to prevent Brexit now, in spite of the wishful thinking that’s going on in some circles. They are also very happy that racism, the traditional tool for dividing the working class, has become rampant, as a result of the campaign they waged and the way the media pandered to such reactionary ideas.

I think the Tories will be looking for some sort of compromise where the UK retains some elements of the free market, abolishing freedom of movement in letter but retaining some in fact. And what happens next is also not up to the UK – whatever they come up with will have to be agreed by the EU itself. The most significant countries such as Germany want freedom of movement to be retained as this keeps their own labour costs down. And the EU aren’t likely to want to concede special arrangements with the UK that could later be demanded by other countries. Much of this will take a long time to play out, perhaps years.

Meanwhile, the racist genie is well and truly out of the bottle here. Any suggestion that any element of freedom of movement could be retained is likely to result in new racist paroxysms.

What happens now? [2] The five candidates are submitted to an elimination vote of the Tory MPs. When two candidates are left, they are submitted to a postal vote of Conservative individual members. . The deadline is the October conference season, so this may take some time to work through.

But how the contest will play out is still up in the air. All the candidates have promised to implement Brexit – but more or less quickly – with Leadsom the one saying she will move quickest. All are saying that freedom of movement is out. Credibility, which is itself depends on a number of factors: track record, not having too dark a past ( likely to take out Liam Fox), and whom they know and are associated with. Given that Gove now appears to be damaged his knifing of Johnson andFox and Crabb have little support, the main candidates now look like May and Leadsom. Two women could be the choice put to the Tory membership

May has clearly oodles of credibility and though she supported Remain, is making the sort of compromises that mean some Brexiteers are supporting her. Leadsom has a clear and worked out Brexit position and is also a rising star, so she could be in with a chance. As the vote finally goes to the party membership who are likely to favour Brexit heavily, I think that Leadsom has a very good chance. But I am not gambling on it!

Early election?

Is it possible that a new election be called over the next few months? I don’t think so.

The fixed term parliament act means an early election would require a 2/3rds majority in the commons. Furthermore, it’s likely that the Tories will want to have the boundary changes in place that would gerrymander them, on the face of it, an unassailable majority. A much reduced number of seats in Scotland would weaken the SNP and similar in the big industrial cities would give Labour a mountain to climb.

The only people to gain an advantage from an early election would be anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, who would get a chance to renew their seats before any attempt by the new left surge into the Labour Party to deselect them.

So I think this could only happen if the Tories seriously fall apart, and we are still some way from that.

What influence could the Labour leadership election, if it happens, have? Well it could make a difference. If Corbyn is out, a “cooperative” labour leader could encourage the Tories to take a punt on Leadsom, but if he remains and is strengthened by a substantial vote, I think the Tories might well plump for May, who sounds like more of a known quantity at the dispatch box.

But it’s all highly speculative. The final decision on the Tory leadership will involve their membership and not just the MPs. And currently ten minutes seems a long time in politics.

[1] For more on factions in the Tory party read here. This comes with a health warning. I think there is considerable crossover between these factions

[2] This BBC site has a diagram that explains this

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.