This is unprecedented constitutional territory. Ever since David Cameron said before the last election that, if he won, he wouldn’t serve out a full term, it’s been likely that the next prime minister would be chosen solely by the members of the Conservative Party.
In recent times, mid-term changes of prime minister – James Callaghan in 1975, John Major in 1990, Gordon Brown in 2007 – have been decided by MPs of their respective parties. It hasn’t always been a satisfactory process for the electorate, who tend to feel that they ought to be consulted, but there is at least a democratic justification. MPs have, after all, been chosen as representatives of their constituencies, and since the government party has a majority of seats, those constituencies form more than half the country.
But merely to leave the decision in the hands of a party’s activists is a new development. And it’s to be thoroughly deplored. A prime minister who comes to office in such a manner will lack any political legitimacy. There is no constitutional obligation to go to the country, but there is an unanswerable democratic case.
This is thrown into sharp relief by the conditions in which this leadership contest is being held. Whoever wins will face the most daunting in-tray of any incoming premier since Winston Churchill in 1940. If we are to go ahead with leaving the European Union, the task ahead is of such overwhelming significance that the choice of prime minister matters much, much more than it normally would. This is far too big to be the concern of just one party.
The job calls for someone with the highest levels of political experience, personal competence, mastery of detail, knowledge of Europe and negotiating ability. Regrettably, we are not blessed with the greatest generation of politicians from whom such a person can emerge. Nonetheless, a choice has to be made.
Since we have a Conservative government, the options are narrowed down further. The most obvious candidate is David Cameron, the one person who has definitively ruled himself out.
Of the names currently being canvassed, Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan are absurdly lightweight, while Stephen Crabbb and Andrea Leadsom have nowhere near the experience needed. This is not just about choosing a party leader; this is selecting the person potentially entrusted with taking Britain into a new era, and none of the above are even vaguely serious suggestions.
Whoever wins needs to command support in the country, to be able to reach beyond the hardcore Tory faithful. Which means that there’s no point even considering those who have proved themselves deeply unpopular with the public, thereby ruling out Michael Gove, George Osborne and, particularly, Jeremy Hunt. None of them would stand a chance of bringing the nation together.
Liam Fox is a more serious proposition, though not quite as serious as he seems to think he is. As a GP who’s been in parliament since 1992, there is at least some experience. He’s even served in cabinet as the defence secretary, albeit for just seventeen months; then he was obliged to resign, having proved incapable of keeping separate his professional and personal interests in his best man, Adam Werrity. An error of judgement on that scale, at the age of fifty, suggests serious character flaws. Nor does he inspire sufficient trust among the public.
Which leaves just two possible candidates. And one of them is accorded this status only because of his leading role in the Leave campaign and because of his personal popularity. Otherwise, Boris Johnson simply lacks the c.v. for the role. He’s never served in ministerial office and has no experience of negotiating successfully with anyone. (Londoners will remember the fiasco over the Night Tube, due to start last September and still not in operation because of disputes with transport unions.)
As befits a good serio-comic columnist, Johnson is strong on broad brushstrokes, displays no apparent interest in detail, and has an attention span dictated by deadlines. He’s disliked by European leaders, who remember the creative writing he went in for as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and the dishonesty of his referendum campaign did nothing to raise his standing. As mayor of London, he made a fun figurehead, but that’s not the job currently being advertised.
And then there was one. Theresa May is not the politician we would have ideally chosen for this historic role, but she’s the best candidate on offer. Six years as home secretary gives her the experience, both domestically and in Europe, at least to attempt the Herculean labours ahead. The fact that she has survived so long in the minefields of the Home Office, which have been the ruin of so many politicians, suggests she can navigate her way through Whitehall. She isn’t too posh, and her calm, frankly dull, public persona may do something to calm down the passions aroused by the vote last week.
Her entire career, up to and including the referendum, has been one of carefully hedging her bets, allowing people to draw their own conclusions about where she stands. This has, in the past, infuriated some in her party who wanted more conviction, but right now, when the need for some kind of national unity is so pressing, her lack of a grand vision, of fervour, may be an asset; this is no time for a messiah. May has sometimes been talked up as the Iron Lady Mark II. She is no such thing, just as Johnson is no Churchill. In her case, that’s a virtue: her model now should not be Margaret Thatcher but Angela Merkel.
There is one further requirement for the next prime minister: that they should be prepared to work with those in other parties. Since this is about the future of the nation, we need a steering group of all the talents, to oversee the negotiations. It should bring in representatives from Labour and from the national institutions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and – most importantly – it should involve Sadiq Khan to speak for London, the importance of which to the economy means that it cannot be ignored. Of the options, May is probably more capable of building such bridges.
And still, the first question asked of any candidate, though, should be whether they are prepared to seek the mandate of a general election within six months of taking office. Anyone who cannot give that assurance, who lacks the confidence that they can secure the backing of the public, does not deserve to be in the race.
The media are already talking up Boris Johnson, the candidate who emerged from within their own ranks, but in these circumstances, we really shouldn’t be sending a boy to do a woman’s job.