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The Tories after David Cameron

July 22, 2007

If David Cameron goes, who could replace him?

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After an extended honeymoon of over eighteen months questions are beginning to be asked about David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party now that Labour is ahead in the opinion polls. A large part of his appeal rested on the assumption that he would deliver them victory at the next election and now that seems less of a certainty the vultures cannot be far behind. Indeed, there is talk about a challenge to him while if he loses the next election he will be dead meat. My guess is that his leadership was always a parody of what the Conservatives believed to be the secret behind Tony Blair’s success, namely appearing to be a ‘moderniser’ within his party and grabbing onto popular issues. However, this was always a pretty big misunderstanding. In fact Tony Blair was a substantive, rather than a cosmetic, centrist and was driven by conviction rather than by opinion polls (as he showed in his foreign policy). At the same time Blair did not go from ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration’ to ‘hug a hoodie’ overnight.

Even worse than the lack of substance is the fact that the issues David Cameron picked to showcase his conversion to social liberalism are the ones on which the majority of the public is either conservative or apathetic. Paternity leave and solar panels on rooftops have little traction outside The Guardian and Woman’s magazines. Issues such as the health service, education and law and order are the real bread and butter of British politics and on those positions the Conservatives still trail Labour. Indeed, Cameron’s comments about anti-social behaviour and his belief that the use of the phrase ‘Islamist’ should be banned sound downright dangerous when set against the very real impact of crime on the poorest sections of society and the recent bombings. At the same time, Cameron’s indecisiveness on foreign policy show that he is little different from the isolationist and anti-war leanings of Michael Howard while his decision to exploit racist hysteria over foreign criminals showed the hollowness of his conversion to social liberalism.

Since there is no current betting market on a successor to Cameron and it is always difficult for a non-conservative like myself to handicap such a contest I will tread lightly. However, the following are a few pointers to some possible successors (in order of likelihood).

David Davis – The candidate who Cameron defeated for the leadership in 2005. There will probably be an organised attempt to find a ‘stop-Davis’ candidate (as Cameron was in 2005) and there will be a lot of opposition from some of the media. However, Davis is popular with the base, reasonably charismatic and will probably be a lot more moderate than his reputation would suggest (although without the David Cameron style gimmicks) once he gets into office.

William Hague – The one thing that I cannot understand about Conservatives is their adoration of William Hague. Few Labour party supporters regarded Michael Foot as anything other than an embarrassment after he brought the Labour party close to extinction. However, despite the fact that the Tories got fewer seats in 2001 than Labour got in 1983, Hague is viewed with reverence by virtually all Conservatives. In many ways he is the ideal ‘stop Davis’ candidate with only his record and the fact that he might have enough common sense not to run stopping his candidacy.

George Osborne – In many ways he played Jeb to Cameron’s George Bush in that many people were surprised that it was Cameron rather him who ran. The fact that he could call on Cameron’s web on supporters without being committed to Cameron’s pseudo-liberalism is a big plus in his favour. However, like Jeb Bush, the base of the Conservative party might be so alienated by Cameron that he will get a very cold reception.

Ken Clarke – The fact that Ken Clarke could credibly make a fifth run for the Conservative party leadership indicates the paucity of credible leaders in the Conservative party. On paper he sound the ideal candidate; economically centrist, socially liberal (but without Cameron’s gimmicks) and experienced in government. However, his pro-European stance makes him unelectable while he lacks both the discipline and desire to win the contest. He actually surged into a brief opinion poll lead in September 2005 and won endorsements from the Daily Mail but a middling speech and a lack of passion in the closing stages made him lose his momentum and he came last in the parliamentary ballot. If elected he would give Gordon Brown many sleepless nights but (fortunately) he is unlikely to run.

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