The Conservative succession: a damned inheritance

Ever the historical pedant, I spent yesterday scrambling to find a parallel for David Cameron’s dramatic ouster in the wake of the EU referendum. Margaret Thatcher’s departure over Europe in 1990; Herbert Asquith’s removal at the hands of Lloyd George at the height of World War 1; Peel’s exit over the Corn Laws — none of them seemed to match what came to a crescendo on Friday morning. At times I thought of the depositions of England’s medieval rulers I studied at university, brutal usurpations frequently made against the backdrop of intense political instability and civil strife.

One can overdo the hysterical analogies, and today’s prime ministers are certainly not invested with the same divine qualities as some their more distant forebears. But it is worth pausing to consider the enormity of what we witnessed yesterday. A leader re-elected for a second term just over a year earlier acknowledging the total shredding of his authority at the hands of some of his closest colleagues during the most important plebiscite in our history. Throw in Europe’s significance in Conservative history and the massive economic, social and diplomatic consequences riding on the referendum, and the magnitude looks even greater.

Posterity will not now judge David Cameron kindly, as many of his political obituaries have correctly testified. But amid the pile-on, some of his redeeming features have been forgotten. Until at least a few months ago, the Prime Minister had a connection with the public that most British politicians would envy. He was adept at converting that standing into capital within his government, balancing a number of proud and often inflated egos around his Cabinet table while allowing most of his senior ministers to get on with their jobs. The ‘Chairman of the Board’ title bestowed on him by commentators was well-earned.

The reputation for good government Cameron built paid dividends for the Conservatives in 2015, but now appears squandered at an unbelievably critical moment for the country. Whoever takes his place will need to restore it fast if the British people, the markets, businesses and world leaders are to be convinced. But such a task will be greatly complicated by the trauma of Cameron’s removal, something that if past depositions are any guide will create festering resentments in the ruling party and make the job of balancing factions a daily nightmare. Is anyone up to the job?

Cameron’s primary referendum opponent, former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, naturally starts as favourite. Like Margaret Thatcher in 1975, he took a high-stakes gamble and it paid off. But in doing so, Johnson has provoked the open anger of many of his fellow MPs and raised fresh questions about his temperament. His tenure at City Hall showed him to be an insouciant policymaker — not exactly what you want in a leader as Britain prepares to renegotiate some of its most important trading arrangements. Senior figures in the Tory Party that he would have to accommodate, such as Theresa May, have meanwhile treated him with open contempt.

The Home Secretary for her part is widely regarded as Mr Johnson’s principal adversary in the coming contest. Unlike Johnson she played a cautious game during the referendum, guardedly backing In while flirting with Euroscepticism. She is the only senior contender with experience of negotiating at the highest level in Europe, something that makes her my preferred choice among the likely contenders. But May’s balancing act may simply serve to make both tribes in the EU debate suspicious of her intentions. Her career at the Home Office has also shown her severely lacking in the ability to keep ministers on side and seen her accused of excessive micromanagement. The shadow of Gordon Brown’s miserable premiership looms large over her candidacy.

May’s bitterest adversary in government, Michael Gove, has ruled himself out of the running. His aggressive attitude to other ministers in Cabinet and nihilistic behaviour at the Department for Education would be red flags enough if he were in the game, but the way in which he conducted himself during the referendum made even Johnson look statesmanlike. Empowered by this result he will play an even more divisive role at the top of government, this time without Cameron’s restraining influence. Another rancorous clash with May — whatever her position — seems a racing inevitability.

Those further to the back of the pack — Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom — have all had reasonable referendum campaigns, and come without the baggage of their more senior rivals. But it is hard to see them exerting authority over a split party and able to confront the swirling crises that bedevil the government. Leadsom’s Secretary of State Amber Rudd has international experience from her time negotiating the COP21 agreement and was a formidable presence on the campaign trail, but angered too many colleagues with her full-on attacks on the Brexit camp.

One of these individuals will probably inherit David Cameron’s place at the table, along with the grave responsibilities that now come with it. But all lack those qualities that enabled him to endure for so long, while none look that ready for the complex pressures that come with taking the top job after the defenestration of their predecessor. Like the usurpers and pretenders of old, they will find before too long uneasy always lies the head that wears the crown.

Photograph: DFID

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