This is an extended (and unedited) version of an article I wrote for today’s Sunday Telegraph.
And they say election campaigns don’t change anything… Only two months ago Theresa May was mistress of all she surveyed – respected by most, liked by many, getting on with the job she had secured only nine months earlier. Two months later she is struggling for political survival. Parts of her parliamentary party are in open revolt, her staff in Number Ten are like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship and political pundits wonder whether she’ll be gone within weeks.
If she makes it to the summer recess, she should be safe, barring other unforeseen disasters, but no one believes she will fight the next election.
There are those who believe that she’s hating the job and has only stayed on as PM out of a sense of duty. Some believe she may quit in July and hand over to Boris Johnson or David Davis. Others think that she will soldier on for as long as she can and then hand over later in the parliament to someone from a new generation. It’s a big assumption given that 16 days on from polling day she has still not managed to stitch together a deal with the increasingly greedy DUP. But let’s say it happens. Let’s assume she survives until after we leave the EU on March 29 2019 and let’s assume Jeremy Corbyn is still Labour leader and ahead in the polls. What happens then? What kind of leader would the Tory party look to, to lead them into the next general election?
It’s safe to say that both MPs and party members may well look to a new generation. The likes of Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond could be seen as figures from the past. Given how Jeremy Corbyn has “connected” with young voters, Tory MPs may think a few risks need to be taken and none of the usual suspects will quite cut it.
The 2010 intake of Conservative MPs has been described as the ‘golden intake’, with comparisons made to the 1979 intake which featured Chris Patten, John Major, William Waldegrave and John Patten.
Several of the 2010 intake have already made it into the Cabinet – Amber Rudd, Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Karen Bradley, Liz Truss, Brandon Lewis and Jeremy Wright. Conservative MPs will ask themselves: Are any of these election winners? The leading candidate ought to be Home Secretary Amber Rudd. She has shown she has the balls to take on all-comers in a bare-knuckle fight, but with a majority of only 346 in her Hastings & Rye constituency, that is probably enough to rule her out of the running.
As Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom has the chance to increase her media profile as ‘minister for the Today Programme’. She’s a lot cannier than her last leadership campaign might suggest, but question marks remain over her suitability to take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn.
Priti Patel is more of a political streetfighter and certainly looks the part, but does she have the intellectual depth which the job demands? Some of her colleagues seem somewhat doubtful.
If Sajid Javid had stuck to his original Eurosceptic convictions and not ruined his credibility on the right by backing ‘Remain’, I have little doubt he would now be the standout candidate. He still could be. If he plays his cards right over the next two years, he’s certainly one to watch.
If you burrow down into the lower echelons of government there are also some impressive 2010 intake ministers, like Nick Hurd, Dominic Raab, Jo Johnson, Claire Perry and Jesse Norman. But given there isn’t likely to be a major cabinet reshuffle anytime soon, they’re not going to have too many chances to shine.
Outside the government Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan are two other members of the 2010 intake who both have their admirers, but it’s difficult to see either commanding widespread support across the party given their troublesome and often rebellious behaviour. And then there’s Esther McVey who lost her seat in 2015 but is back as MP for Tatton. She wasn’t brought back into government by Theresa May, but that may be a blessing in disguise. If part of the criteria for the job is whether you can imagine her in a TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn, she certainly passes that particular test.
In some ways, it’s quite depressing that from the so-called golden generation there is no stand out candidate. Perhaps the party will skip a whole generation and look to the 2015 intake. Names mentioned include James Cleverly, Rishi Sunak and Ranil Jayawardena.
In the end, none of the names I have mentioned inspire total confidence in their ability to beat Jeremy Corbyn, which is an indictment in itself. But there is another name who would be an ideal candidate for the leadership. There is a record of winning elections, a record of showmanship, a record of appealing to people who are by no means natural Conservatives. There is a candidate who appeals to the youth vote just as much, if not more than Jeremy Corbyn.
Step forward Ruth Elizabeth Davidson. Ignore the fact that she’s not currently an MP. Ignore the fact that she’s intent on wrestling power from Nicola Sturgeon in the 2020 Scottish Parliament elections. Ignore the fact that she is less interested in interminable policy discussions and more interested in taking the Conservative fight to the media. She’s one of the few genuine stars in the Tory firmament. Yes, she has a tendency to shout her mouth off in a style Edwina Currie would be proud of. Yes, she’s unpredictable. Yes, she’s said to be somewhat highly strung in the temper department. But in the end, she’s a winner. And that’s what the Conservative Party is desperately searching for.
Ruth Davidson, your party needs you – in London, not Edinburgh.