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Artillery Row

Has Badenoch peaked?

No one should assume they know who will be the next Conservative leader

Since we’re only a week into this election campaign, it seems hasty to look past it. But as grim a vista as Starmergeddon presents for Tories, one holds out the chance his government will be so dreich, incompetent, and unpopular that a rapid return to office is not implausible. Starmer has taken Labour from a post-war low to landslide territory in four years. The history book on the shelf, and all that.  

As such, time to indulge in SW1’s traditional navel-gazing hobby: leadership speculation. If Rishi Sunak takes a shellacking worse than 1997’s as his cue to cut and run for Santa Monica, who will take over the remaining shell-shocked party? Tory MPs are thought to be fond of the cliché that they are “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”. This often surprises those who have observed them up close. 

That is not only because MPs are not trusted to solely select their own leader — they whittle down amongst MPs to a final two for the membership — but because their choices are driven less by rational electoral analysis and more by careerism, self-delusion, and spite. Having been rather pessimistic about Conservative prospects, a drubbing at least means fewer MPs to keep tabs on. Every cloud…

Thanks to Tim Bale and David Jeffrey, we have an idea of what the parliamentary party would look like in several post-election scenarios. Whilst the decision of some MPs to stand down rather than court humiliation has changed this breakdown, it does give us a rough idea of what the standings will be. Similarly, our various ConservativeHome surveys are the best metrics of current membership feeling. 

What do they tell us? According to Bale and Jeffrey, the worse the election for the Tories, the more southern, Oxbridge, and ex-ministerial the parliamentary party becomes. Their bleakest scenario — a Labour landslide with only 106 Conservatives left — would leave 49 per cent of MPs as having backed Sunak in October 2022, compared to 43 per cent now. By the fruits of Sunakism you shall know it. 

What about the membership? Even a cursory glance of our surveys suggests Kemi Badenoch is the clear frontrunner. Not only did she come top when members were asked for the next leader — with 37.71 per cent of the vote, compared to Penny Mordaunt with 23.34 per cent in second place — but she has topped our Cabinet League Table every month but two since Ben Wallace’s September departure.

Game, set, and match to ConservativeHome’s erstwhile Minister of the Year? Not quite. Not only does the Business Secretary have to win over her future parliamentary colleagues before she gets to the members, but there is the possibility of members wanting one candidate, and MPs choosing another two. Badenoch was also the frontrunner in summer 2022 — but MPs gave members Sunak and Liz Truss. 

In the absence of a coronation, an agreement by members to hand over their votes, or a general acceptance that these things were easier when left to monarchs and Magic Circles, Badenoch will have to straddle her two audiences. Her strategy has been to play the Cabinet submarine, loyal, often unnoticeable, but occasionally surfacing to despatch a torpedo towards the w*ke or Europhilic. 

The logic is sound. Recent Tory leadership contests have tended to produce a candidate of the party’s ministerial class/centre and one of the backbenches/right: Theresa May vs Andrea Leadsom, Jeremy Hunt vs Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak vs Liz Truss. Henry Hill points out those distinctions are more complex than on paper. Even so, experience suggests that the rightwards candidate proves more popular.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Not only because of the demographic breakdown of Conservative members — late middle-aged, Southern, and Leave-voting — but because the candidate of the right can always ask a very simple question: why haven’t the Tories made the country more Conservative? After #FourteenWastedYears, candidates hope to answer that as convincingly has possible for members.  

That is not to say members will fall for the siren calls of organisations like the Popular Conservatives. Mark Littlewood’s ginger group reportedly hopes to install a “Liz-Truss style candidate” as leader post-election. Members are no fans of Whitehall inertia, Net Zero flagellation, or an ever-higher tax burden. But our survey shows they are not Truss nostalgists and want defence spending before tax cuts.

The problem for Badenoch is that trying to ride two horses — staying loyal to Sunak to sweep his voters in a leadership election but burnishing her right-wing credentials to repudiate his government’s approach in opposition — has left her open from challenges on both sides. Already, she has run into conflict with backbench Eurosceptics over her alleged watering down of plans to scrap EU legislation. 

If MPs want a loyalist, James Cleverly — affable and ideologically light — or Claire Coutinho — the Supergirl of Sunakism — or Tom Tugendhat — war? what is it good for? — should be available. But the backbench right has Suella Braverman, Priti Patel, and Robert Jenrick as vote receptacles. MPs of the centre might back Badenoch to keep out the latter three. But MPs of the right might do the opposite.  

Again, a helpful piece of positioning on Badenoch’s part. But she will also have to contend with some of her most prominent supporters from 2022 — such as Michael Gove, Lee Rowley, or Tom Hunt — either having left Parliament or losing their seats, on current polls. Yet she also benefits from her rivals being clipped by the electorate. Penny Mordaunt can hold up a sword. But can she hold Portsmouth North?

A similar question hangs over Braverman. As voluble as the former Home Secretary has been from the backbenches since her sacking as Home Secretary, one questions whether it has been wholly to her benefit. She does not speak for the “silent majority”.

Her recent conversion to scrapping the two-child limit is likely to have done little to endear her to colleagues of a right-ward stripe. Indeed, it’s Jenrick — her former Number 2 — at the Home Office who has better exploited the Telegraph’s Comment page to stake out his pitch. He is not yet Pierre Poilievre, but a combination of YIMBYism and slashing immigration follows the thinking right’s centre of gravity.

There is no point in her trotting past MPs and members into the Leader of the Opposition’s office without a credible plan

Badenoch may plead that she has been too constrained by office to speculate as loudly about conservative futures as Jenrick. But this didn’t stop her former patron. There is no point in her trotting past MPs and members into the Leader of the Opposition’s office without a credible plan of what she wants to do once there. How radical really is she? Can she hope to be the face of change? Who is she? 

Much of this leadership election is unknown: the number of parliamentary participants, the campaign length, the scale of the anger at Sunak and the long Tory record. In the collective blame game, one fears that this supposedly sophisticated electorate will be too busy backbiting to perform a proper autopsy. Will members take up the slack? Or will the right-wing entertainment industry triumph? 

Of course, pigs may yet fly. But either way, it’s a debate to which Badenoch should wish to apply her full energies. The sooner the Tories can agree on a diagnosis of the maladies of the last fourteen years, the sooner they can work on some form of cure. Whether she relishes her frontrunner position or not, Badenoch will hope to be at the heart of that conversation. She has the mandate of Burchill. 

Even so, Gove hasn’t always been spot on when identifying the future of the right. Conservative leadership races do usually have a habit of disappointing the frontrunner. Rab Butler, Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo, David Davis — the list of leaders-who-weren’t is quite exalted. In 2022, Badenoch was just another Levelling-Up Minister, unsuspected as Queen of Tory hearts. 

In the spirit of Zhou Enlai, it might therefore be too early to say just where the next Conservative leadership contest will go. Ruth Davidson went straight from entering Holyrood to being Scottish Tory leader in 2011. It’s not beyond the bounds of probability a charismatic member of the new intake could repeat her trick. Badenoch might become yesterday’s fancy — a Portillo for the Tik Tok generation. 

All we can be certain of is that the race will leave an awful lot of Conservatives feeling dissatisfied. Amid all the chaos and calamity of the last fourteen years, that has been the only thing the party has managed to consistently deliver. 

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