5 Jul 2016

Theresa May: will the MPs’ favourite charm the members?

Theresa May has scooped up half the Tory MPs who voted (only David Cameron didn’t vote).

It almost certainly puts her on the ballot paper of two names that the rules require to go to Tory members.

Andrea Leadsom looks in a strong position to be the second name. The numbers don’t look good for Michael Gove, even less good for Stephen Crabb.

Team May will now worry that the activists in the country will, as some of them put it, “do a Corbyn on the parliamentary party” and impose Andrea Leadsom on Tory MPs who don’t want her. They also talk of fear that Arron Banks’ Leave.eu machine will bombard Tory members with propaganda for Andrea Leadsom which will appeal to a membership which voted by quite a margin for Leave.

Even amongst Theresa May supporters you find plenty of MPs who say their candidate is not a great public performer and they worry she won’t come across well in hustings. Years of avoiding the camera except on carefully selected occasions on her terms have already shown her to be a little slower thinking on her feet than you’d expect from a frontline politician of her experience.

But the May supporters hope that Andrea Leadsom’s underwhelming performance at Tory MPs’ hustings in the Commons yesterday means she won’t be able to fire up enthusiasm in the country and will seem too inexperienced to hold power at such a challenging time.

Even if Theresa May holds on to the sort of support amongst activists which the YouGov/Times poll suggests she currently has, the campaign in the country has the capacity to push her policy position on the EU renegotiation closer to the core Leave campaigners who want the most distant relationship possible.

It’s been a strange contest on many levels but one oddity is that the normal dominating argument – who can win an election – has barely been discussed in a situation where the Tories could be 4 years off having to call another election and at a time when Brexit has posed massive challenges for an incoming PM.

Theresa May wants to keep things focused on those challenges. But one of the other striking things is that in 3 conversations with different MPs today, all supporters of the front-runner, I heard the word “caretaker” applied to her. There was a suggestion that after sorting out the hard work the Tories might jettison their choice and find someone with more flair and voter appeal.

We may be able to see the outline of the end of the parliamentary process in this leadership contest. But as with much else in our politics, it is still very murky, unpredictable and unstable.

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