Conservative MPs have picked an experienced minister and a novice Brexiter as their leadership candidates. The selection of two women closed the door on Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Samira Shackle reports from London.
The next prime minister of Britain will be a woman. On Thursday, the Conservatives chose two female MPs to put forward to party activists in the contest to replace David Cameron. Home Secretary Theresa May (pictured) and junior Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom triumphed in the second round of voting, winning 199 and 84 votes, respectively.
The fortnight since the referendum on Britain’s EU membership has been a tumultuous political period. Justice Secretary Michael Gove entered the premiership contest last Thursday after a dramatic intervention to prevent the candidacy of his fellow “Leave” campaigner and leadership front-runner Boris Johnson. Gove was knocked out of the contest Thursday after gaining the backing of just 46 MPs.
“Going by recent polling in the first round, this is pretty much how everyone expected it to go,” said Adam Wildman, economy lead at the Conservative think tank ResPublica. “May is obviously the runaway candidate, with over 60 percent of MPs backing her. I think Gove was punished for his Judas/Brutus act against Johnson.”
The next prime minister will be chosen not by the wider electorate but by 150,000 members of the Conservative Party. The winner needs more than 50 percent of votes cast, with the result announced September 9.
‘An unknown quantity’
Until recent days, Leadsom, who has very little public profile and hasn’t held a major governmental role, was viewed as a rank outsider. “Leadsom hasn’t been a contender in the years and years of ‘runners and riders’ journalism we’ve all taken part in,” Conservative writer Kate Maltby said. “It’s not just that she’s an unknown quantity, but that she benefits from not having become a cartoon character and being seen to aspire to power for these last few years – unlike Gove and May.”
Though May clearly has a large lead amongst the parliamentary Conservative party, she must now convince members. Her hard-line policies on immigration, detention, civil liberties and the European Convention of Human Rights (which she wants to scrap, despite backing “Remain” in the Brexit vote), have won her favor among the membership.
“May is the front-runner, but Leadsom clearly has a chance, both because of her profile in the Leave campaign and because she has managed to secure support of leading figures like Johnson,” said Matt Cole, a teaching fellow in the Department of History at Birmingham University. “She offers newness and a clear position in favor of the decision in the referendum. On the other side you have May, with experience and credibility from the right of the party. She was also clearly able to keep the trust of the ‘Remain’ side of the party, and the hope there will be a balanced settlement and a realistic approach to negotiations of exit from the EU. Unity versus leave would be too simple a way of putting it, but one candidate clearly gains their main identity from being prepared to stand up for the ‘Leave’ opinion, while the other gains their authority from experience and ability to reach out across the party.”
With the backing of a significant majority of Conservative MPs, May is currently the clear front-runner, but the membership has historically voted in favor of newcomers and Euroskeptics. Cameron, who was elected in 2005 as a relative parliamentary novice, is just one example of the party membership’s preference for disruption.
But Wildman cautions against putting too much stock in past leadership contests. “In 2005, members were selecting a leader of the opposition, several years away from a general election,” Wildman said. “This is electing a prime minister. It’s a different proposition during this time when there’s a negotiating process to contend with, when the economy may hit the brakes with plummeting investor and business confidence. May’s argument – and I personally agree with it – will be that you need a firm hand on the wheel.”
Most are expecting May to present herself as the ‘serious’ candidate, while Leadsom – backed by Nigel Farage and other prominent figures from the UK Independence Party – plays up her Euroskeptic credentials. “Even the most Euroskeptic of Conservative members know that we will need a hard negotiator, so May’s campaign will be looking to emphasize her experience,” Maltby said. “No one wants the country to be led by a beginner. But it will be a tough campaign. One problem for May’s campaign is that if Leadsom’s recent behavior is anything to go by, she will spend the campaign making impossible promises, which May as a government minister will find it harder to match.”