Their interventions in the leadership race were appallingly timed, badly worded and will have no effectby Steve Bloomfield / July 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
As Theresa May strode into committee room 14 in the House of Commons to cast her vote for the country’s next prime minister last month, a journalist asked her for whom she would be voting. “None of your business,” she said, as she passed. A month later, once Boris Johnson had become the runaway favourite, she finally hinted at who she wasn’t voting for, in a speech at Chatham House where she warned about the rise of populism.
She took aim at politicians with an “inability to combine principles with pragmatism,” which has led, she said, to “a form of absolutism.” It was, her advisors told journalists, a swipe at Johnson, among others.
Philip Hammond was similarly reticent at the start of the voting process, refusing to give his backing to any candidate. But yesterday he revealed that he would resign rather than serve under Johnson, due to the frontrunner’s willingness to support a no-deal Brexit that Hammond had previously called “terrifying.”
What was the point of these interventions? If it was to stop Johnson becoming prime minister, they were more than a month too late. Imagine if May and Hammond had both been honest at the start of the leadership election, pledging not to vote for Johnson and explaining why they thought his premiership would be a danger.
A prime minister, possibly standing next to her chancellor, warning of the dangers of voting for one of the candidates, could have been explosive. It might not have persuaded enough MPs to support another candidate, but it would have at very least set the parameters for the election. Among the grassroots, where May still has respect if not huge support, her warning could have made a real impact.
There is an argument that a leader should not indicate a preference for her successor. David Cameron was similarly mute in 2016, as was Ed Miliband in 2015 and Gordon Brown in 2010. Indeed, you have to go back to 1990, when Margaret Thatcher withdrew from the leadership election and threw her support behind John Major, to find an example of a sitting leader…