Monday, 11 July 2016

#MayWeCan – why Theresa May should be the next British Prime Minister

I wrote this piece before Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the Conservative leadership election on 11 July, making it all but certain that our next Prime Minister will be Theresa May. This is, I think, a positive outcome. Andrea Leadsom deserves credit for identifying that she would struggle to unite the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and that a lengthy leadership election is not in the national interest. Similarly the speed with which the Parliamentary Conservative Party selected a new leader, who is both unifying and electable, is worthy of praise, and demonstrates why the Party has spent so much of the Post-1945 period in Government. It’s easy, and worthwhile, to compare this with the difficulties which the Labour Party has had with its leadership since Miliband resigned in 2015. This piece is clearly dated, and in this context some of the language used to describe Leadsom may be unnecessarily harsh, reflecting the passions created by Brexit and the leadership election. Nevertheless it’s still a good summary of why I think that, at this moment in our history, Theresa May is an appropriate choice for Prime Minister. Also, at this stage, this blog (quite understandably) has virtually no readership at all, so there’s not much that this piece can do to damage its reputation.

Britain needs a new Prime Minister. This is, in my view, unfortunate. David Cameron has, on the whole, been a good Prime Minister. Not perfect for sure, or even great, but certainly good. Under his Government’s the economy has performed well, with reasonable growth and impressive job creation figures. But the Brexit vote on June 23 holed Cameron’s authority below the waterline, and he correctly assessed that he needs to stand down. It’s a shame, and in many ways unfair, that Cameron will probably be best remembered as the Prime Minister who presided over a Brexit vote. All the indications so far suggest that ‘Project Fear’ will turn into ‘Project Fact’, and that we are entering a period of profound economic, political and constitutional turbulence. It is quite possible that Britain won’t survive this turbulence as a political unit, most likely due to the departure of Scotland. But we are where we are. What we need is someone to steady the ship, and in so far as this is possible, clear up the mess.

Conservative MPs, representing millions of voters, have narrowed the choice down to two candidates, Home Secretary Theresa May or Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. The final choice will be made by the 125,000 or so strong Conservative Party membership. There is, I’ll admit, something of a grotesque irony in all this. The Brexit campaign urged us to ‘Take Back Control’, and won the referendum. And yet our next Prime Minister will be selected by a tiny, and highly atypical, section of the population. And this choice is of unusual importance. The stakes for our country are very high indeed. Since Brexit Sterling has slumped to a 30 year low against the Dollar, Britain’s credit rating has taken a battering, the FTSE 250 is still well down and we face constitutional crisis about the position of Scotland, and possibly Northern Ireland, within the Union. On top of this we need to re-negotiate our relationship with the European Union, re-negotiate all the trade deals we used to benefit from as a result of EU membership and decide how much EU origin law to keep on our statute books. In short, the job for the next Prime Minister is going to be bloody difficult. It’s a wonder anyone wants the job.

Considering how high the stakes are it’s vital that our next Prime Minister is experienced in Government, can unite the country and has a track record of competence. Theresa May, in my view, fulfils all three of these criteria. May has served on the Conservative’s frontbench team since 1998, and has held the position of Home Secretary since May 2010. Being Home Secretary, one of the top jobs in Government and one fraught with risk, for over 6 years is a very impressive achievement. In short she wouldn’t have lasted that long unless she was very good. Which she is. On her watch crime has continued to fall, despite economic turbulence, and when necessary she has been prepared to confront the likes of the Police Federation. I’ll admit I know relatively little about Andrea Leadsom, which, if I’m honest, is part of what concerns me. Until a few weeks ago, before she took part in Brexit TV debates, I’d barely heard of her. My suspicion is that the same applies to many of her current supporters. She’s probably a perfectly good Energy Minister – certainly I’ve heard nothing to the contrary. But quite frankly, given the challenges our country faces, that’s not good enough. This is no time to take a gamble.

Whilst my knowledge of Leadsom’s background is limited, what I do know does raise some questions about her judgement. It seems clear that her CV has been somewhat embellished, and she’s on record as advocating massaging the prefrontal cortex of babies, a quackish medical treatment. During the referendum campaign she responded to concerns raised by Mark Carney by describing him as ‘an ex-Goldman Sachs banker’, who ‘has encouraged financial instability’. A potential Prime Minister would usually take the concerns of the Governor of the Bank of England seriously, not dismiss them out of hand and then target him with wild accusations. But this is the year 2016, where in politics anything seems to go.

I mentioned earlier that our next Prime Minister will be selected by a small, and very unrepresentative, section of the population. This raises important questions about the victor’s democratic legitimacy. Just over a year ago, in May 2015, the British people elected a centre-right Government led by a liberal-conservative Prime Minister. If Andrea Leadsom is elected leader by Conservative party members, we could well end up with a Government of the hard right. Leadsom, and her allies, are very different beasts from Cameron and his associates. They are assertively anti-EU, to the point that they would be prepared to undermine Britain’s economy to loosen our relationship with Europe, socially conservative on issues like gay marriage and pander heavily to minority interests on subjects such as fox hunting. In short, a Government led by Andrea Leadsom could look very different ideologically from the one the British people thought they were electing in May 2015.

In addition if Leadsom becomes Prime Minister she will do so against the wishes of the majority of Conservative MPs. In the final round of voting by the Parliamentary party she had the support of just 84 MPs, as opposed to 199 for Theresa May. The problem with this is that Conservative MPs clearly represent a far larger group of people, and therefore can provide greater democratic legitimacy, than Conservative Party members. In short if Leadsom does become Prime Minister she will have to call a General Election to establish basic democratic legitimacy. She’s too ideologically distinct from Cameron to be legitimised by the latter’s 2015 election victory, and she’s opposed by the majority of Conservative MPs who have a much stronger mandate than the party members. By contrast May, who is ideologically comparable with Cameron and has the support of a strong majority of Conservative MPs, would have full democratic legitimacy. If Leadsom wins however, and fails to call a General Election, she will struggle to be accepted, let alone respected, by a good proportion of the general public.

In short Britain needs a strong, experienced leader to confront the economic and constitutional difficulties caused by the Brexit vote. The stakes could hardly be higher. Britain’s survival as a political entity hangs in the balance, due to the threat of parts of the Union leaving. May fulfils the necessary criteria, and would clearly have democratic legitimacy as Prime Minister. Leadsom, I’m afraid, does not, and if she becomes Prime Minister would need to call a snap election to establish legitimacy. The Conservative Party, to its credit, is about to give us our second female Prime Minister. But it matters enormously which candidate they select, and I hope for the countries sake they select the responsible option.