A Note on the Leadership Race

As Boris Johnson’s premiership draws to an undignified conclusion, a new leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party is to be elected for the third time in just over six years.

When last that happened, Professor Norton blogged about about four different types of Prime Ministers: Innovators who want to implement specific and ambitious goals of their own design (e.g. Thatcher), reformers who want to implement the goals of the party overall (Attlee), egoists who are in it for their own fame (Eden, Wilson, Johnson) and balancers who are concerned with keeping the peace between rival factions (Macmillan, May). He has not claimed these to be definitive or exclusive, but merely the labels he finds most useful. Recently he has revisited the idea.

In my view the roles of innovator and reformer are a little difficult to distinguish, as political ideas are often credited to the prime minister who enacted them even when their invention was owed to another (e.g. much of Thatcherite thinking was actually the product of Sir Keith Joseph). It might be better to merge them into one category of ideologue.That of balancer more obviously stands apart as someone less ambitious about specific goals and more concerned about overall stability. Egoist, of course, is something that few politicians would admit of themselves and which often comes across as a slur (not that it is untrue).

At present the nomination window has yet to formally open let alone close, so the field is still prone to change, but let us take a look at those declaring so far:

  • Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden), lately a junior local government minister
  • Suella Braverman (Fareham), current Attorney General
  • Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey), current health committee chair
  • Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), lately health secretary
  • Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North), a junior trade minister
  • Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), current transport secretary
  • Rishi Sunak (Richmond Yorks), lately Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk), current foreign secretary
  • Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge & Malling), current foreign affairs committee chair
  • Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon), current Chancellor of the Exchequer

At present Sunak and Truss are perceived as most likely to make the final ballot. Sunak seems to be positioning himself as a balancer. He wants to be perceived as a safe pair of hands and broadly popular among the public. Truss is going more for the ideologue side, particularly those who had favoured a harder departure from the European Union. Both are obviously egoists at heart, given that both appear to have registered their campaign websites some time before there was any hint of Johnson’s resignation. Concerns have long been raised about Truss spending government money on her own publicity, while Sunak seems to have hired a social media specialist to improve his personal brand.

Among the other candidates, Mordaunt and Tugendhat might be considered together. Their support (and that for defence secretary Ben Wallace, who was the front-runner before he ruled himself out) seems to come from the same source – a desire to clean up the party’s image and get politics back to normal. The quest for them is less about any specific policy goals and more about cleaning up the party’s image. They are seen to have demonstrated competence in their roles so far (a rare treat in modern politics) and avoided the scandals plaguing those at the top. Their military backgrounds are likely a large part of their appeal.

Javid and Hunt are somewhere in between. Hunt was the runner up in 2019 and has stayed out of Johnson’s government, so is a champion for the opposing faction (especially Remainers). Javid is more closely associated with Johnson but not seen as a lackey to the extent that Sunak or Truss are. Both are well-established within the parliamentary party so probably seek the same safe-hands image, as well as leaning on their reputations as businessmen.

Badenoch and Braverman both have fairly low national profiles which they are probably hoping to raise. They are unlikely to win but may be securing higher offers in the new cabinet or the next leadership election, whenever that may be. The former is well regarded for her chamber and studio performance, and promoted as a competent officeholder, whereas the latter seems to be favoured more as a stalking horse for an economic sect of the party.

That leaves Shapps and Zahawi, whose analysis must be very carefully phrased. Like Hunt and Javid they both have business backgrounds, but these may prove more a hindrance than a help. Shapps has several times attracted controversey over the conduct of his companies as well as denial of operating them under pseudonyms while serving in the Commons. In late 2015 he had to resign from the government due to alleged negligence in handling bullying claims within the party. He’s even been caught editing his own Wikipedia page to remove inconvenient details. Zahawi is distrusted by some in the party for having accepted a great office of state from Boris Johnson immediately before demanding he step down. There have also been numerous concerns raised about his private business interests, and flags raised by HMRC over his tax affairs.

Without commenting on the veracity of these particular claims, it raises the prospect of another category of leader – the featherer. Like egoists, no candidate would outright admit to being one, but unlike them the goal is less to acquire personal fame and more to protect one’s personal interests – or those of a different person supporting them. This would be hard to use in an academic textbook though, since such nest-feathering typically does not become known until many years after the accession has taken place.

UPDATE (12th July)

Shapps and Javid have withdrawn, Rehman Chisti dipped his toe but shortly withdrew again. Badenoch, Braverman, Hunt, Mordaunt, Sunak, Truss, Tugendhat and Zahawi have qualified for the first round.

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