Susy Roberts, 28th June 2016
When David Cameron announced his decision to step down before the last election, I predicted just how difficult it would be for him to fend off his potential successors once he named them, in how not to run a succession plan.
Not only did Boris Johnson, his biggest opponent, seize the first opportunity that came along to topple him (turning the referendum into a ‘schoolboy scrap’ for the Tory leadership), but Theresa May’s support remained unforthcoming throughout the campaign.
George Osborne, whilst seemingly in support of the PM, argued so strongly for a Remain vote – threatening anyone who wanted to leave with a ‘punishment budget’ – that he ended up doing more to deter voters than he did to win the day.
Unfortunately for Boris, even though the result is that a teary-eyed Cameron was forced to announce his resignation, just one year after winning a confident majority, the immediate and severe economic fallout means any plans to move into number 10 are now far from certain.
In an effort to strengthen his bid to become the next Prime Minister, Boris has embarked on some serious backtracking. Instead of rushing to realise the benefits a Leave vote was meant to bring, he’s now insisting that ‘there’s no haste to leave Europe’. After allowing the campaign to take on an ugly anti-immigration tone by sharing a platform with UKIP, he used his weekly column for the Telegraph to insist immigration was not the reason people wanted to leave. Apparently they just wanted a little bit more control.
He’s also tried to reconcile himself with Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, who he previously accused of ‘talking down the economy’ and undermining the Bank’s independence when Carney tried to forewarn the public about his fears for Sterling in the event of a Brexit. Today, the same Boris says the same Carney ‘has done a super job’.
While some might argue that he’s simply trying to bridge the gap between the two sides and reduce the hostilities left over from the campaign, it instead looks like he made contradictory pledges to voters that simply cannot be delivered. Former chancellor, Alistair Darling, has even accused him of treating the situation ‘like a big game.’
Anyone but Boris
As the battle lines are formed, bitter rifts have emerged in the Conservative party amid a growing campaign to ensure Anyone But Boris becomes the next Prime Minister.
Those keen to see Boris at least try to deliver on his promises and avoid the need for a damaging leadership contest, have urged Home Secretary, Theresa May, one of his most serious rivals, to run on a joint ticket to unite the party.
However, with the chance to become the Prime Minister, and not just the party leader at stake, I would be as surprised as anyone else if she simply stepped aside.
Indeed, some MPs have already questioned whether or not they should be using the sovereignty of Parliament to overturn the referendum (which was never legally binding) by allowing MPs themselves to vote on whether or not to exit the EU. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has observed that some leave supporters now regret their votes and says we should not destroy the economy “on the basis of lies and the hubris [excessive self-confidence] of Boris Johnson.”
All of which does nothing to help Boris’s cause.
How to pick the right leader
There’s no longer enough time to create a pipeline of candidates with the right credentials and profile to step into such an important role. Instead we have to look at who has the capability required to navigate the current economical and political uncertainty right now.
At the very least, the Tories need to find someone with a passionate outlook on how this monumental change can be used as an opportunity for Britain. Whether that’s a Brexiteer, like Boris or Gove, or a Europhile, like Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, who would be keen to define our role as part of a wider Europe, having campaigned passionately to stay.
Whoever that leader is, they must be able to unite a divided country by accepting that previously marginalised sections of society, in particular the disempowered working-class communities that have had their jobs and communities quietly devastated by entire Eastern European workforces being imported on low pay and conditions. No matter the benefits of immigration to the country as a whole.
Their vote for Brexit was in effect a vote for UKIP (given Labour was apparently in favour of staying in the EU). So, if the next Prime Minister fails to govern in their interests, as well as the interests of their usual middle-class voters, come the next general election we will potentially see the rise of right-wing politics.
It’s therefore critical that both of the major political parties put revenge games and infighting aside, accept the verdict as given and instead focus on finding leaders with the ability to unite.
Critical to this is electing as leader an individual who not only has the charisma and passion to take the country in a new direction but also the open-mindedness, tenacity and consistency to see their vision through.
Boris still has a chance, given he spearheaded the direction the country is now headed in and his ability to engage with the public and win votes, but he’ll have to fight for it.