So farewell then, Theresa May. You are a decent, dedicated, hardworking person who bore a great burden with dignity and fortitude. You have earned our sympathy. Sadly, you were quite spectacularly incapable of discharging the responsibilities of prime minister.
So now the Conservatives seek a new leader from among their MPs and a number of them appear to believe they are qualified for the office. Most will fall in the first ballot and attention will quickly turn to the five who remain – almost certainly Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid. Rory Stewart may have been making headlines but he will not survive the cut.
Johnson is the bookies’ favourite. He claims to be the man who can beat Nigel Farage. But Farage is not the Conservatives’ enemy. In 2015, while Cameron sneaked a majority, Farage’s UKIP polled nearly four million votes on a single issue. In 2016, the country voted to leave the EU. In the 2017 election, UKIP all but disappeared – job done.
If the UK leaves the EU by October this year or shortly thereafter, the overwhelming likelihood is that by 2022 Brexit as a party will be history. Job done yet again. I respect Nigel Farage greatly but he is the ultimate one-trick pony.
I am solidly in the ABB camp – anyone but Boris. I have no personal animus towards him. He writes brilliantly, he can be amusing and he is good with ordinary people, in sharp contrast to Mrs May.
He twice won the London mayoral election, albeit the first time was when Ken Livingstone was looking for a third term and the Tory lead over Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was the biggest it had been for a decade. His second was off the back of a Conservative-majority government and with Livingstone yet again as his opponent.
Those who have worked with Johnson know how much he relied on the people around him – the late and much-missed Simon Milton, his successor Ed Lister, Stephen Greenhalgh and Isabel Dedring. Ironically, two of them are now themselves MPs and both James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse were briefly candidates for PM against their old boss.
My observation of Johnson was of a man who survived by winging it. He never appeared to have read his papers and as foreign secretary that precise failing condemned the unfortunate Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to several more years of hell in an Iranian jail.
As Michael Heseltine so acutely observed, Johnson is “a man who waits to see which way the crowd is running and then dashes in front and says ‘follow me’”. His Brexit strategy is simplistic and designed exclusively to appeal to his party’s many leavers. He would be a disaster not just for his party but for the country.
Best of the rest
As to the others, my money would be on Hunt as I have said before in this column. Raab has impressed as intelligent, clear-sighted and articulate. He would represent the new generation of Tories and offer the prospect of a fresh start. As a former Brexit secretary who made good progress negotiating with Michel Barnier, he is probably best placed to get an acceptable deal by October.
Javid has impressed as home secretary, not least because he has not been afraid to undo what is now seen as Mrs May’s tarnished legacy. Whether he can lead the party and for that matter the country is not yet proven. His previous job as business secretary, which as an ex-banker he might have seemed more fitted to, was not a success.
The real wild card is, of course, Gove. He is arguably the most gifted minister in the government having been spectacularly successful at education, justice and now Defra. He is the Marmite candidate for sure and his recent troubles over Class A drugs when a journalist 20 years ago won’t help, but for me any one of these three would be a shot in the arm for their party and ultimately the country.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and This Land