Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Conservative leadership contest

Since I was inspired by a friend's political blog and as a party member it was inevitable I would write something at some point, so let's get it over with now.

In many ways a leadership contest is the most exciting period for any political party. On the one hand it offers the party the opportunity to reassess how it implements its core values, to address its structural problems, to identify where it needs to improve and to look to the future. On the other it offers the opportunity for all the old divisions within the party to be taken into the public arena with no-one even pretending to call for a show of public unity, whilst every personal vendetta going gets wheeled out in an almighty bloodbath.

The Conservative Party has until this week proceeded at an almost leisurely pace, with much of the attention taken up by discussion over rule changes with the media trying to identify the frontrunner. It astounds me that so many people seem to be taking it for granted that David Davis will be the next leader. What's that I hear people cry? He's the frontrunner? True. But so were Portillo and then Clarke in 2001, Clarke in 1997, Heseltine and Thatcher in 1990 (at least at the outset), Heath then Whitelaw in 1975, Maudling in 1965, Hailsham (Hogg) in 1963, Butler in 1957, Halifax in 1940, Curzon in 1923, Austen Chamberlain in 1911, Northcote in 1881-1885... the list goes on. In not one of the serious contests (1989 and 1995 were frankly exercises in pressure relief) has a frontrunner become leader.

Some have called for a formal contest to be avoided and it's easy to see why this option is attractive to Davis supporters. The only times when a frontrunner has become leader has been when they have been the only candidate. That list includes Michael Howard, but also Anthony Eden (1955), Neville Chamberlain (1937), Austen Chamberlain (1921) and Arthur Balfour (1902). Howard aside, and some would also argue for Neville, this is not an encouraging list.

In any case it seems a formal one horse race is no longer an option. Malcolm Rifkind has all but declared and gained the start of a campaign team. Alan Duncan has gone further. The momentum has already started and if other candidates don't make their intentions publicly clear soon then they could find themselves as never-beens in this contest.
Of Rifkind and Duncan I have to say that I feel this is a choice between yesterday's man and tomorrow's man. Rifkind has many admirable qualities and would have been a very good choice for leader in 1997, had not the voter of Edinburgh Pentlands decided he deserved some time out of Parliament. But now it is nearly twenty years since he first entered the Cabinet and he is heavily associated with those years. He is an essential part of the Shadow Cabinet but sadly isn't leadership material in a time when the party needs to look forward. Alan Duncan is younger, more dynamic and comes with less baggage. He is also well aware of where the party has been going wrong and may be the one to find the direction it needs to go to get things right again.

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