This week Theresa May agreed with the 1922 Committee Executive that she would address the leadership question with Sir Graham Brady immediately after the Withdrawal Agreement vote. Everyone has interpreted this as her signalling she would then step down, given the likely result of the European elections and given the likely result of the Second Reading Vote of the Withdrawal Amendment Bill.
On May 29th she overtakes Gordon Brown for length of service as Prime Minister. A day later she overtakes the Duke of Wellington, to become our 34th longest serving prime minister. If she stays in office until a new leader is elected, in early August she will have overtaken Neville Chamberlain and James Callaghan. If she doesn't go until the Party conference she overtakes Lord Addington and the Duke of Portland to enter the top 30. Does this matter? Well, in one sense it does, because the length of the leadership contest may help to determine who wins.
A short contest will benefit the best known of the likely runners and riders. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt would certainly prefer a contest which finishes as soon as possible. They will know that the conventional wisdom is that the front runner rarely wins. The longer the contest goes on, the more likely it is that someone emerges from the pack, just like David Cameron did back in 2005.
I remember (I was David Davis's chief of staff at the time) the debate at the time between those who wanted it over with by the end of July and those who wanted a longer contest. Michael Howard deliberately engineered a long contest with the full intention of encouraging the 'young turks' like Osborne and Cameron to show their wares. I and others tried to persuade David not to accept this and demand that the contest was a short, sharp one. David was entirely relaxed about a longer timetable and I remember him saying to me: "We will win however much they try to fiddle the rules." Well that went well.
Since then, the power of the leader to determine the timetable has been restricted. It is now the sole perogative, as I understand it, for the 1922 Committee and the National Union to decide the rules and timetable for the contest. Number 10 can try to influence it, but that's all.
I've done some investigations on this, and my strong suspicion is that both the voluntary party and the 1922 Committee are more likely to favour a longer contest, enabling party members to test the candidates at hustings all over the country.
Although the government has said it will introduce the Withdrawal Bill into Parliament week commencing 3 June, I am given to understand that the second reading debate and vote will not take place until the following week. I am also told that the shortest time for the Members part would take 6-9 weeks. So this could be the timetable...
- June 10 Second Reading of the Withdrawal Bill. Government is defeated.
- June 11 Prime Minister announces she will stand down once a new leader is elected
- June 12 1922 Committee Executive & National Union Executive meet to determine timetable.
- June 13 Nominations open
- June 18 Nominations close
- June 20 MPs first ballot
- June 25, 27 MPs second & third ballots
- July 4 MPs fourth (and possibly) final ballot
- July 5 Series of 10 regional hustings commence
- August 15 Earliest date for result to be announced
- September 3 More likely date for result to be announced
And that's the shorter timetable. There are two alternatives for the longer timetable. The first would be for the ballot to close in late September and the new leader to be unveiled at the Tory Party Conference at the end of the month. The even longer timetable would entail the conference being used for the two final candidates to make their pitches, with the result being announced in mid to late October.
Of course, this is all rather muddied by the 31 October date for us (yet again) supposedly leaving the EU. I'm afraid I see little likelihood of that happening, whichever timetable is proposed.
Team Boris and Team Jeremy, and maybe one or two of the others will argue for the shortest possible timetable on the basis that...
- The longer the agony goes on for the party the longer it will take to get voters back
- The WAB won’t go through so we have to have a leader with time to renogotiate befor October 31 or to make the case for a strong renegotiation with the EU prior to 31/10.
- The party has to fix things now.
- Why wait - government and party are paralysed
- If we are going to change leader let’s give them a head start on new EU commission.
- Carpe diem
Perfectly valid arguments, but in Boris's case I'm not sure they will be taken hugely seriously. Team Boris will fear a long campaign in case, as Kirsty Wark put it on Newsnight on Friday, there are skeletons which still remain in the closet. The longer the campaign the more likely they are to emerge. Long campaign = more media scrutiny.
My instinct is that the middle option will be chosen - i.e. a longer contest with the winner unveiled at the conference. Which automatically means it won't be that one!
Coming tomorrow: Who are the runners and riders and the start of my Tory leadership popularity index!