Our next Prime Minister – time for Conservatives to decide

Unlike my position on the EU referendum itself, where I deliberately avoided participating in either campaign, I have decided to publicly state who – of the five candidates on offer – I want as the next leader of the Conservative party and, therefore, our next Prime Minister.

This isn’t an easy decision to make. All five candidates have both strengths and weaknesses, and it would be foolish to deny that. But this is the reasoning behind my choice. Looking at all five in turn…

To begin with, the two insurgent challengers, Stephen Crabb and Andrea Leadsom. Both of these have reasons to commend them. They both come across as being intelligent and good at making decisions.

However, they both also lack experience. It’s OK to elect as leader someone relatively inexperienced when in opposition, as they’ve got time to get used to being leader before they need to also be PM (and, if it turns out they’re not up to the job, we have time to get someone else in place before the election). But to take over mid-term while in office, you need someone with plenty of experience of a cabinet level post. Crabb and Leadsom just don’t have that. They may both be good candidates the next time around, but not this time.

I like Michael Gove. I admire his reforming zeal, and I think he’s done a good job at both Education and Justice. But I also think that when he said he wasn’t equipped to be Prime Minister, he was both honest and accurate.

I think Gove would make an excellent Home Secretary. I think he has the necessary One Nation sensibilities to make the right decisions there, and the intellect to come up with creative solutions to some of the department’s more intractable problems. But I think that should be the height of his ambitions.

Had Liam Fox been on the final ballot paper the last time around, instead of either David Davis or David Cameron, I might have supported him then. But I think he is yesterday’s man now. The only possible way he might get my vote is if he came through as the compromise candidate, the one who has both the necessary experience and the Brexit credentials (although, personally, I think the latter is almost entirely unimportant at this stage – we need the best PM, not the one who ticks any particular box).

Which leaves Theresa May. Of the five candidates we have, I think she is head and shoulders above the others in terms of both ability and experience, and there really is no plausible alternative.

Regular readers of my blog may be surprised to find me saying that, since I have been scathing enough about her – or, more precisely, the Home Office’s obsessive authoritarianism – in the past. And I still think that certain sections of the Investigatory Powers Bill – aka the “Snooper’s Charter” – are appallingly inconsistent with a Conservative approach to liberty and freedom.

But a failure to take on the vested interests of a small clique of civil servants is not, in itself, a reason not to support May for the leadership. She, alone of the five candidates, has both extensive experience at cabinet level and the qualities necessary to be Prime Minister.

It may seem to be damning her with faint praise to describe her as the “safe” choice, but safe is what we need right now. We don’t need someone who, on his own admission, is not cut out to be Prime Minister. Nor do we need someone who has no significant experience at the highest level of politics.

Theresa May also commands the support of the largest proportion of Conservative MPs. That alone is not a reason to back her – we ordinary party members have a voice, and a right to our opinion, too. But it is an important factor. The Labour Party is currently giving us a textbook example of what happens when the leader doesn’t command the support of MPs. That may not matter so much for the opposition. But in government, such conflict wouldn’t just be disastrous for the party, it would also be disastrous for the country. We need a new PM that MPs on the government benches are happy to serve under.

So, assuming that Theresa May is on the final ballot paper which goes out to Conservative members, she is who I will be voting for. I would urge my Conservative colleagues and fellow party members to do the same.

The next Prime Minister

Nominations for the Conservative Party leadership election – and, by extension, the internal election for the next Prime Minister – open today and close on Friday. Conservative MPs will whittle down the contenders to a final two, who will then be voted on by the membership as a whole. The precise timetable after that depends on the number of candidates, but we should know the winner by late August or early September.

As a party member, I will have a vote in the final ballot. I’m not going to say who I’ll be backing until I know who I have to choose between. But these are some of the principles which will guide my choice.

Firstly, it needs to be someone who can unite the party and the country.

That may sound like a meaningless platitude which will be uttered by every candidate. But it isn’t, and it matters. We’ve just had a very bruising referendum contest, and it’s important that the new leader is someone who can work with both sides. Someone who will appoint ministers on the basis of ability, not cronyism and patronage.

David Cameron has won two general elections by appealing to the centre ground of British politics. That, too, is an essential attribute of his successor. We need someone that the floating voter is comfortable floating towards. It isn’t enough to rely on Labour’s shortcomings to win an election. We need to be able to offer a positive choice to the ordinary, non-political voter. More than ever, a post-EU Britain needs a one nation government.

Secondly, we need someone who appreciates and encourages the work of grassroots Conservatives at association and branch level.

The new leader of the Conservative Party won’t just be responsible for the parliamentary party. It needs to be someone who recognises that politics doesn’t just happen in Westminster, but in county halls, town halls and civic centres across the country. Someone who makes it easy for me and my colleagues to be proud of what we stand for.

The timetable for any possible hustings will be short, but I want to see the final two candidates making a strong effort to reach out to ordinary members and telling us directly why we should vote for them. That’s another reason why I’m not backing any specific candidate yet. I want to hear what they actually have to say to us.

Finally, I want someone who I can trust with the things that matter to me.

Obviously, every party member will have their own priorities which will reflect their own experience and circumstances. But my choice will be influenced by the things that I care about: a strong commitment to civil liberty and freedom of conscience, an understanding of technology and the value to the UK’s economy of an open Internet, a bias towards evidence-based policy-making, and a preference for localism over a one-size-fits-all approach.

The decisions we will make over the next few weeks will have long-lasting ramifications.

Under normal circumstances, party leadership elections are held at on a timetable intended to give the new leader time to settle in before any really difficult decisions need to be made. That won’t be the case this time.

The incoming Prime Minister will need to get straight to work on our negotiations with the EU. An early general election is also on the cards. That makes it all the more important that we in the party think long and hard about who we want in that role. The potential difference in outcome between the right and wrong choice could not be more stark.

A few random thoughts about the Newark by-election

Reading the runes from a by-election result is always problematic. The local nature of the event means that it’s hard to draw national trends, while protest votes and tightly focussed campaigns by all parties have an effect that won’t be present at a general election.

That said, who are the winners and losers from Newark? In many ways, none of the parties will be completely satisfied. Some, though, have lost more than most.

Starting with the Conservatives, they obviously have the most to celebrate since they won (or, rather, held) the seat. This is an achievement in itself, since the Tories haven’t previously won a by-election while in government for 25 years. It’s still a heavily reduced majority, which would be bad news if extrapolated nationally. But, overall, this is a reasonably satisfying result for CCHQ.

For UKIP, the glass is closer to half full. A huge surge in support lifted them into second place, but they were still nowhere near causing a genuine upset. The confident pre-election predictions from the UKIP camp that they were at least going to run the Tories closely, if not snatch the seat, have turned out to be rather more hubristic than they would like. Possibly more worryingly for UKIP is that their percentage of the vote was down compared to the nearest equivalent area in the European elections. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they’ve already peaked.

Labour, on the other hand, will definitely not be happy. Despite brave attempts to spin the result by talking of a tactical switch to the Tories to keep UKIP out, the reality is that for the main opposition party to lose ground in a mid-term by-election does not bode well for their general election hopes. Labour would have held on to second place if they’d at least retained their voters from the 2010 general election, and even a smallish increase would have made the Conservative majority uncomfortably close. Losing vote share and dropping to third place, even in a highly tactical election, is a bad result whichever way you look at it.

No amount of spin, though, can mask the disaster which befell the Liberal Democrats. Falling from a close third to a distant sixth, behind both the Greens and an independent, and shedding nearly 90% of their vote along the way is about as bad as it can possibly get. Tactical voting may well have played a part, but only a part.

Results for the other candidates were all much of a muchness. Independent Paul Baggaley came fourth, beating both the Greens and the Lib Dems, but none of the other minor parties and by-election bandwagon jumpers got more than a handful of votes. The Greens got a thousand votes, give or take a few, but a semi-rural seat in the Midlands is never going to be natural territory for their brand of metropolitan angst.

Stepping back from the individual parties, though, the overall voting pattern is worth looking at. The Conservatives lost around 10,000 votes, labour lost 5,000 or thereabouts and the Lib Dems lost 9,000. Meanwhile, UKIP gained 8,000. Given that the minor parties don’t amount to anything much in this consituency, that’s more votes lost than gained. So where did they all go?

The answer, of course, is that many of them were lost to non-voters. The by-election turnout was only 52.6%, compared to 71.4% in the general election. In 2010, the non-voters amounted to around 29% of the electorate, which is more than those who voted for second-placed Labour but a long way short of the victorious Conservative candidate. In the by-election, the “I don’t have an opinion” party made up 48% of the electorate. That’s the biggest proportion, by quite a large margin.

Another thing worth noting here is that if Labour had held on to all their votes from the general election, and picked up most of the lost Lib Dem votes – something which is not an unreasonable ambition – they would have won this seat. With UKIP splitting the right of centre vote, and the Lib Dem collapse removing the main left-wing competitor to Labour, Labour should have been quids in. But it didn’t happen that way.

To a certain extent, then, a significant number of voters seem to have been sufficiently fed up with the three main parties to desert them, but were not willing to vote UKIP in protest. That’s probably more true of Labour and the Lib Dems than the Conservatives, but even the Tories lost more votes than UKIP gained. That loss of voters to apathy is probably the thing that will concern the Conservative and Labour leaderships the most, since if there’s one thing that UKIP voters are not, it’s apathetic.

As we saw in the European elections, a low turnout benefits UKIP. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband need to find ways to reconnect with former supporters who have simply given up on politics rather than switched to another party. And that is probably a more pressing need than attempting to appeal to UKIP voters.