In the rubble of post-Brexit Britain, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson have all fallen on their sword despite emerging victorious just 15 days ago. Their inability to articulate a clear roadmap for life outside the EU, perhaps because none of them ever expected to win, has ultimately blunted their political ambitions, for now at least.
So, among all the Shakespearean back-stabbing, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom have emerged from behind the scenes. At first glance, the most passionate and enduring advocates of the Conservative Right have been purged. But before we get too excited, it’s worth taking a closer look at the two candidates who will become our second female Prime Minister.
Though 32 points behind in current polls, and attracting only a cringe-worthy set of ‘posh protesters’, Andrea Leadsom surprised many when she leapfrogged her fellow Brexiteers to make the final shortlist for Conservative leader. In many respects, she is the darling of the Tory Right; courting support among the ‘faith, flag, and family’ groups of fox-hunters, small businessmen, and patriotic populists. Leadsom finished far behind May in the MPs’ ballot, but she will undoubtedly use that as political leverage to attract the anti-establishment Tory traditionalism prominent among party activists. The former city banker will, as Tim Stanley has written, play ‘Donald Trump to May’s Jeb Bush’. In a confusing time where billionaires can somehow be champions for the poor, anything is possible. Leadsom will also find a core base of support as the only candidate remaining who backed Brexit, with many self-proclaimed ‘leavers’ citing anti-establishment reasons and rhetoric for their decision.
Theresa May, on the other hand, offers experience in the top jobs (she is the longest serving Home Secretary in modern times) and radiates a calm, almost introverted persona. But, as many cabinet colleagues have attested, she can also be unbending, uncompromising, and a tough operator at times. Her brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’, including support for the minimum wage, maternity rights, and same sex marriage, provides an antidote to the excesses of what she once famously described as the ‘nasty party’. Barring an insurgency from Leadsom equivalent to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s last year, it is likely May will emerge victorious. She also has the added bonus of being the second most favourable Conservative leader among the general public, which may prove critical in a future general election.
Which candidate is best for Labour? That’s a tricky one. Their first priority must be to steady their own ship. The furore over Chilcot has offered Corbyn some respite from internal coups as public attention has temporarily shifted, but that won’t last long. The Tory election machine, with all its ruthless pragmatism, will no doubt unite vociferously behind its chosen candidate; portraying a beacon of harmony in contrast to Labour’s squabbling. If Corbyn remains and Leadsom’s unlikely insurgency is successful, we will be faced with a refreshingly polarised political landscape and one which, I believe, will better reflect the modern cleavages in British society than the monotonous consensus of the last few decades. In that scenario, a mobilised working class may just deliver a Labour victory… but I won’t be holding my breath just yet.