As the May premiership moves from Brexit crisis to potential meltdown, it's time to pay attention to the unprecedented way in which her successor will be pickedby Tom Clark / October 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson’s pre-conference posturing over his “personal vision” for Brexit looked shambling to the country. He pre-empted the prime minister’s speech in Florence by setting his own criteria for the negotiations in a 4,000-word Telegraph essay, ran into resentment and appeared to back down—before resurfacing on the eve of the Tory get-together in Manchester muttering about red lines again. An understandably annoyed Theresa May declined to be drawn on his future, and Britain saw its foreign secretary exposed as a mopped-topped chancer.
There was, however, a parallel world in which Johnson had proved himself to be a No. 10-ready patriot—the world of Conservative activists. A YouGov survey of members found him edging a leadership run-off against David Davis, by 46 to 39 per cent, and trouncing the more liberal Amber Rudd 57-33. Such intra-party polls have proved accurate before, notably in spotting the rise of longshot Jeremy Corbyn among Labour’s rank and file. The bookies took note and, however daft Johnson looked to most voters, made him the new favourite to replace May.
There is no mystery about why the Conservative base might be out of kilter with the country. The members are self-selecting, ageing and strikingly thin on the ground. The Tory campaigner, John Strafford, recently told journalist David Hencke that membership was freefalling towards 100,000, down from one published figure of 150,000 in 2013. Where constituencies such as Churchill’s Woodford boasted membership of well over 10,000 in the 1950s, today, Strafford suggests, in 300 seats, membership is 100 or less.
A country with little taste for active involvement in Conservative politics is indifferent to the withering of the voluntary party—but one thing could soon change that. With May badly weakened by her misfiring election, and even more vulnerable after her faltering Manchester speech, the stage is set for the thinned ranks of members to pick the country’s next leader. Nothing remotely like that has ever happened before.
“Though rarer than ever, Conservative members will likely soon have more power than ever before”
Since the monarch finally lost all control over the pick in the early 19th century, every premier has either won an election in the country, or else emerged as, in effect, the choice of the MPs who represent it. When a PM goes, then,…