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June 27, 2005

The Real Tory Contest: who will have the senior positions in the next shadow cabinet?

Posted by Watlington

A plethora of Conservative MPs have made it known that they are potential candidates for the party's leadership. What many of these MPs are in fact doing is jockeying for senior positions in the next shadow cabinet. Watlington predicts, that once the leadership contest is over, David Willetts could well be Shadow Chancellor and the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party.

Whilst much of the Tory tribe in the Westminster village is focusing on the Conservative leadership election, there is a far more interesting contest going on: those jockeying for a senior position in the Shadow Cabinet. So far around 10% of the Conservative Parliamentary Party has hinted that they would like to stand for leadership of the Conservative Party, but what these individuals are really standing for are the positions of Deputy Leader, Shadow Chancellor and Foreign Secretary.

The thinking goes that although various individuals (e.g. Alan Duncan) know that they have no chance of winning the leadership contest, they can demonstrate muscle, by showing that they have the backing of a respectable number of MPs (say ten). The objective is to flex muscle in each round of the contest by offering their supporters to one of the candidates with the most support and bargaining for top Shadow Cabinet positions in the process. Of course rarely does such neat symmetry work in practice. A weak leadership candidate that gets little support (say just 3 MPs) has little bargaining power.

What is more, even candidates with a respectable following cannot guarantee that all their followers will do what they say. Remember John Redwood. When he joined with Kenneth Clarke after the 1997 election, many of his followers simply refused to follow suit. Furthermore, the more leadership candidates there are, the fewer senior positions there are on offer. What we have is a Tory version of the prisoners' dilemma. If I don't stand my colleagues will and I will lose out - but if I do, will I get a respectable show of support?

However the calculations of some of these candidates falls flat with the following scenario: it is possible that one candidate may be so greatly respected by his or her colleagues and therefore garner significant support that would be more than respectable but would not be enough for leader. In doing so, he or she would leapfrog over his or her colleagues, jockeying for the senior Shadow Cabinet.

Of all the leadership contestants, there is one person who fits this bill: David Willetts MP. David Willetts is one of the few people in the Conservative Party who is respected by right and left alike. Although described as "two brains" he is more than an intellectual because he is one of the few who is able to narrate a story about Conservatism, bringing together the threads of laissez faire and traditional Toryism. He understands that Conservatives need to reclaim the mantle of social justice from the left, thus preventing Labour from having the monopoly on compassion. He is also a very decent man. And therein lies the problem. Genuine decency does not often win leadership elections and if it does it means weak leadership. One who learnt that lesson all too well was Iain Duncan Smith. IDS's world was one in which every man's word is his bond. In the harshest way possible he was to find out that that world died a long time ago.

But, returning to David Willetts, he is one of the candidates for the new Shadow Cabinet to have real weight behind him. So far the talk is that he has the support of 20 MPs. He also has the backing from younger, more thoughtful Conservatives, many of whom know he won't make it as Leader but will provide intellectual ballast to a winning candidate. He has a number of other pluses too. Mr Willetts comes from a humble background and does not have the "I have a divine right to rule" attitude that afflicts so many of the Notting Hill set.

Enter David Davis. One of the few leadership candidates who is really standing for leader, he is said to have 80 MPs behind him. His strength lies in his personal story of aspiration and hard work and the fact that he was brought up in a South London council estate far away from the cosy confines of Notting Hill. But his critics slate his ruthlessness and lack of intellectual ballast. Does this matter? Not really. But just think how much better it would be if in a second round of a leadership contest, Mr Davis were able to bring David Willetts on board saying that Mr Willetts would be Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor in a Davis Shadow Cabinet. This would show the Parliamentary Party that Davis was being backed by someone who was thoughtful, nice and well respected. At a stroke, David Davis would be transformed into a leader who can attract the very brightest and very best. And it is most likely - because the kind of people who support Willetts (such as David Lidington MP) would do so out of admiration - that Willetts would be able to guarantee to bring his supporters over to Davis.

Of course, the Davis team might worry that Willetts might sneak through the middle and actually become leader, but given all the stop David Davis candidates, this is most implausible. Davis and Willetts would be a highly potent cocktail. Davis would supply the ruthlessness and ambition needed to be leader, whilst Mr Willetts would provide the intellectual framework and the story of compassionate conservatism for the next election. Bringing a thoughtful moderniser on board like Mr Willetts would show the Party that Davis can attract the centre ground (or common ground as he prefers to call it), without kow-towing to the Notting Hill set. There would be a real chance that we would have a Tory leadership based on merit and intellect rather than one based on privilege and patronage.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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An interesting piece - agree with most of it. Just one point - who ever said that IDS was a "very decent man"? And what is more someone for whom "his word was his bond"? Certainly a highly debateable point.

Posted by: Anonomous at June 29, 2005 01:49 PM

Agree, Davis and Willetts would make a strong team, but wouldn't they fail to agree on the question of tax cuts?

Posted by: john Skinner at July 26, 2005 04:55 PM
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