For the Conservative Party, a leadership election is not a question of if but when. To quote the Prime Minister’s most ardent admirer, George Osborne, Theresa May is a “dead woman walking”. The party has now come to the chilling realisation that a Corbyn premiership is entirely possible. To them May is damaged goods, authority non-existent despite appeasing the socially backward DUP, and cannot be allowed to enter the next general election as their leader. So who might replace her, and assume the unenviable responsibility of uniting a country recovering from its divorce with the EU? The man already charged with Brexit, David Davis, may just be a likely candidate.
Davis is no stranger to leadership contests. In the simpler days of 2005, he faced a young David Cameron, relatively inexperienced but considerably more optimistic than his opponent. Cameron’s victory enabled him to spend the next decade of his career turning the Conservatives into a socially liberal force ready to take on the twenty-first century. Now, amid the madness of 2017, the good work of that ten years is beginning to unravel. If Davis does have hopes for the top job, he may think to emulate the compassion and vision of his old rival.
The Conservative Party settled into something of an imperial phase only a year ago. Since then its fortunes have collapsed at an alarming rate. Labour already plan campaign days in marginal seats they are confident of snatching come the next election, and with every media appearance Jeremy Corbyn appears to grow in confidence. Whoever replaces May, the challenge they face will be monumental.
So, what are David Davis’ qualifications for the job? No one can accuse him of being without experience. A minister during the turbulent Major era, an ex-chairman of the Conservative Party under the ineffectual Iain Duncan Smith, one third of the near-infamous ‘Three Brexiteers’, and, bizarrely, a former SAS man. Davis’ CV is something to be admired. There has been much talk of a previously unconsidered Conservative taking over from May, The Times running a piece on possible fresh-faced contenders you may not have heard of, but to elect a total amateur may be a risk too far. In opposition to the reckless policies of Corbyn, who falsely presents himself as a modern leader, a safe pair of hands is needed.
‘A safe pair of hands’. Those not yet suffering from a politically-induced coma may remember those words being applied emphatically to Theresa May upon her coronation last year. Her horribly conceited decision to call an early election destroyed any claim she had of competence. In consideration of David Davis as a possible successor, one cannot ignore the fact that he was himself an ardent supporter of that election. In fact, according to some tabloids, Davis was central in “talking” May into it. Davis himself told Marr last month that he was willing to take his “share of the blame” for the election. Calling into question the Brexit Secretary’s judgement would not be unreasonable with this in mind. Any new leader would be pressed to learn the lessons of May’s premiership. Given what was apparently enthusiastic support for a snap election, can Davis be trusted to do that?
His lack of perspicacity in regard to Britain’s negotiations with the European Union must also be scrutinised. Davis has consistently defended the government’s petulant mantra of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, an option now widely discredited. He committed the additional sin of confessing that no economic assessment had been done of such an option, hardly a wise admission given the anxiety of both business and the public about the prospect.
Despite this obvious faux pas, Davis should not be condemned entirely for his stance on Brexit. He has been far more consistent on the EU than one of his more colourful Cabinet colleagues, Boris Johnson. Davis’ euroscepticism is borne from honest conviction, rather than habitual duplicity. He appears genuine in his opposition to the European Union, and was certainly one of the more reasonable figures prominent in a occasionally distasteful Leave campaign. Johnson, who operates a “permanent leadership campaign”, is merely an addict of political advantageousness. The two men could potentially face one another in a future leadership contest. Whilst Boris is adored by the party of his supposed wit, it is not a clown that grassroots members desire in the face of electoral crisis. Jokes would be most welcome at such a politically depressing time, but the Conservative Party requires more than entertainment and bad hair. It needs a decent, worthy leader willing to go forward with serious vision.
Given the fickle loyalties that emerged during last year’s contest, Davis would need honest allies. Support from all factions would be necessary should Davis wish to hold the party together. No leader could survive this parliament without Tory Remainers on their side. A valuable friend would be Philip Hammond, unimaginatively nicknamed ‘Remainer Phil’ by the bitter right, who has advocated for a softer Brexit likely to appeal to those fearful of a hard Brexit. A ‘no deal’ scenario, Hammond told Marr, would be a “very, very bad outcome” for Britain, seemingly contradicting the baseless idealism of Theresa May on the subject. The Guardian claims the Chancellor and Brexit Secretary do share common ground, in that they now make “all the decisions” as the two most dominant members of Cabinet. Support from Hammond would be most beneficial to a Davis campaign, and is not as remote a possibility as one might think. According to the London Evening Standard, Davis enjoys a “powerful alliance” with the Chancellor.
Mrs May has been far from kind to Hammond. Retaliation to this alienation is likely. It would not be impossible for him to offer support to the Brexit Secretary, even if his approval does ultimately materialise as part of a desperate attempt to stop Boris Johnson. If this “powerful alliance” does indeed exist, Davis could easily boast to the parliamentary Conservative Party that he has the necessary ability to unite them.
David Davis’ pro-Brexit colours would no doubt prove popular among a Tory membership that largely voted Leave in the referendum. His opposition to the EU, and his status as a comme il faut politician, would allow him to emerge as a strong contender should Theresa May be forced from No. 10. Victory would not be guaranteed, however. There is the possibility of a second attempt from Andrea Leadsom, potentially attractive to more traditionalist members seeking a retreat. Michael Gove may be preparing to plunge his knife into the back of another ‘friend’. Jacob Rees-Mogg, amusing but unhelpfully old-fashioned, could even appear on the ballot paper, should the ‘Moggmentum’ surrounding him persist. Davis should not expect an easy contest. Success will require stamina.
If the party is to have any chance of victory come the next election, whether that be in years or months, it must replace Theresa May. The Prime Minister has proven herself to be entirely hopeless, and will live out whatever remains of her premiership waiting to be summoned to the gallows. By great contrast, Jeremy Corbyn stands ready for Downing Street. More than ever, common sense is needed. Boris can stick around to make the odd wisecrack at conference, and Rees-Mogg and his limitless thesaurus can remain on the backbenches as Hansard’s greatest headache, but serious times call for serious politics. David Davis may claim to be solely occupied by Brexit for the time being, but when a vacancy appears at the very top it may be worth his while to reconsider.
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