September 27, 2005

Can Liam outfox them all?

Posted by Watlington

Can Liam Fox still win the Tory leadership, asks Watlington? David Davis is now clearly the front-runner and Kenneth Clarke is seen as his main challenger - but Liam Fox has one strong advantage over the other leading candidates. There are strong ABD (Anyone but Davis) and ABC (Anyone but Clarke) lobbies among Conservative MPs, argues Watlington. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Almost every indicator in the Conservative leadership contest points to a David Davis victory. Hardly a day goes by without an MP declaring himself for Mr Davis. He has attracted votes from all sections of the Parliamentary Party, the latest being from Dominic Grieve, the respected Shadow Attorney General.

Meanwhile, Ken Clarke's early strong showing has stalled as he has won few new backers. Mr Clarke was judged to have made a lacklustre speech at Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice recently and has begun to confirm people's view that he is just a charismatic throwback to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst David Cameron's campaign has also faltered - his lack of experience showing through - Malcolm Rifkind's candidature is also going nowhere despite a series of speeches around the country.

So for David Davis, it seems there is all to play for. And yet, Liam Fox is doggedly pursuing his leadership campaign determined not to give up, despite the Davis team onslaught.

Mr Fox has been making a series of remarkable - and respected - speeches on compassionate conservatism at home and on neoconservatism abroad. He has spoken eloquently about mental health and social disintegration in the UK and about dealing with dictatorship and mass genocide across the world. He and his respected campaign team (see The Airey Neave test: which Tory leadership candidate has the strongest team) have carefully cultivated the new intake of Conservative MPs, even going so far as to take some abroad with him on his trips as Shadow Foreign Secretary. One new MP, still deciding between the Davis and Fox camps remarked that he was more likely to vote for Liam as the "nicer" of the two candidates.

Mr Fox also seems to have strong support from The Sun newspaper and there are strong rumours that he will receive the "subliminal" backing of William Hague, (still much loved by party activists). Although Mr Hague is unlikely to come out and support one Tory leadership candidate over another - it is understood that he will attend and support Mr Fox at a special "gathering" Mr Fox will be holding during the Conservative Party Conference next week. To be fair, it has also been said that Mr Hague has had a "rapprochement" with Mr Davis and even went walking with him across the Yorkshire Moors over the Summer. Although this has not been confirmed, it does suggest that the Hague-Davis antagonism of the 1997-2001 Parliament, has somewhat dissipated.

Now that the attempts by the Notting Hill set to cut out the influence of party members in the leadership contest has been rejected, Mr Fox will also be at an advantage - provided he gets to the second round. As Party Chairman, Mr Fox visited hundreds of constituencies and is both liked and well regarded by party activists. Many of the new MPs feel a small debt to Mr Fox for the assistance he gave them in their target seats Mr Fox has also assiduously been wooing the Cornerstone group of Tory MPs (a traditional rightist group who stand for flag, faith and family), which have a strong block of about 20 or so MPs and will therefore have a crucial influence on the leadership contest).

Mr Fox has one further advantage. The Parliamentary Party is clearly divided into two camps: ABD and ABC (Anyone but Davis or Anyone but Clarke).

The ABD group is large and determined, some motivated by envy and snobbery against Mr Davis, others angry at what they perceive as Mr Davis's disloyalty during the Hague and IDS years. Indeed, one MP tempted to back Mr Davis was heard to state that at least it will stop any disloyalty, because Mr Davis is hardly going to be disloyal to himself!

Many of the ABD's rallied behind Mr Cameron in the early days of the campaign as they thought that Mr Cameron was the best route to stopping Mr Davis. At the time it was not expected that Mr Clarke would stand for a third time and mount a vigorous campaign in the process.

On the other side, there is also a strong grouping of ABC's who will stop at nothing to prevent Mr Clarke from being elected. Mr Clarke's views on Europe, the war on terror and public service reform remain anathema to many MPs and party activists.

It is not an impossibility that the ferocious battle being waged by the ABCs and the ABDs mean that they could cancel each other out, allowing Mr Fox to slip through the middle. Remember that IDS won in 2001 because of the ABPs (Anyone but Portillo) and the ABCs (when Mr Clarke last stood). IDS swept through the middle as the least worst alternative. Remember too that in almost every Tory leadership contest, the underdog or unexpected candidate has won.

So Mr Fox has some cards still to play. He has one major handicap however. Credibility. Too many of his colleagues cannot imagine him as Leader and he does not yet have the momentum of support behind him that is engulfing Mr Davis. But neither did Mrs Thatcher in 1975 when she was a leadership candidate. One thing is clear. The Conservative leadership contest still remains wide open.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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Why don't they just duel each other for top spot? The losers would be eliminated and thus couldn't pose a political threat to the eventual winner;)

They are so emasculated and so hopeless right now. In fact they have been this way for some time (post Thatcher basically). Either they get themselves some self-belief and an ideology - remnants of classical liberalism/conservatism/minarchism are still floating around and are waiting to be revived - or they will dither on. At least if they chose Clarke, it would hopefully mean they would self-destruct due to the internal divisions and a new party might form in the resulting void, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Posted by: Raygun at September 27, 2005 11:18 PM

Fox is intellectually dishonest, even by the relatively low standards of politicians. We see this when he declares that any criticism of the war in Iraq is disloyal to the country and to our troops there. He is intelligent enough to realise that he is dishonest as well. Were the war an utter failure, what would he have us do? Remain silent until every British soldier was killed? His is the logic of the Somme. I suspect that, like many people, I prefer political leaders who become dishonest after assuming power, rather than ones such as Liam Fox who start out that way.

Posted by: s masty at September 28, 2005 11:36 AM
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