It is always a funny race, for the Conservative leadership: the candidates are all affect politeness and reluctance, while behind them are teams hell-bent on getting their man, or woman, over that line, without seeming to do so.
Amongst all the contenders, the first commentary on each has been about where they stand on leaving the European Union, and it rarely goes much beyond this, but after Exit Day finally passes, with a new Prime Minister in place, the focus will be on how they approach Conservative concerns on reducing tax, free commerce and curbing the bullying state.
Looking at the leading contenders so far (and others will follow) –
Boris Johnson (Uxbridge, formerly of Henley): the bookies’ favourite. Born in New York to a Somerset family, served two terms as Mayor of London where he proved popular. His Brexit credentials are riding high: he was the leading public voice of the Leave campaign and resigned rather than accept the Chequers proposals, although as this permitted him to resume his paid career in journalism there may have been more to that. He is popular amongst the wider membership, if not amongst his parliamentary colleagues. The strong social conservative wing of the party dislikes his apparent social liberal stance, noting his speech in support for gay marriage in 2013, and his notorious ways with the fillies. Said to be the most intelligent candidate in the field, nevertheless his public persona as bumbling clown has ensured that nationally he is loved and hated in equal measure and for some reason the latter prevails in Scotland. His position on Brexit has overwhelmed all other analysis of his positions.
Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton): the nearest behind Boris in the betting. Born and raised in Buckinghamshire, he had a career as a high-flying solicitor. He has been in Parliament only since 2010 and was almost unknown to the public until he was appointed as Brexit Secretary when David Davis resigned following the Chequers Summit. Raab burnished his Brexit credentials by himself resigning rather than support the Withdrawal Agreement. He may be ‘Boris with his trousers on’.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath): born in Edinburgh and adopted and raised in Aberdeen, he was with Boris Johnson the public face of the Brexit campaign. He is only a recent politician – like Johnson, he is a journalist by trade, but unlike his was at the top end of the national press, rising to the assistant editorship of The Times in the 1990. He is a long-time friend of Boris Johnson’s. Extreme-end Brexiteers have spoken against Gove for remaining in the Cabinet through all the resignations, and for appearing to stab his friend in the back at the time of the last leadership contest (though the circumstances, not widely known, acquit him). His public persona is more reserved such that he has not attracted great public affection, which may not play well in the media.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire): a candidate for leadership last time round and the last firm Brexiteer standing at that point. She was seen to lose her place with a gaffe about childbearing but overall her lack of recognition amongst the public was more telling. Since then, Leadsom has attracted great admiration for her conduct as Leader of the House of Commons in a troublesome time. The question remains whether the BBC would accept her.
Liam Fox (North Somerset): also a candidate for leadership last time and another firm Brexiteer, but who has not hinted at another run at the position. A doctor by trade, born in East Kilbride and educated in Glasgow, he served in the army medical corps and has sat in Parliament since 1992. He is firmly in the Thatcherite camp and indeed he served in the Cabinet of John Major. He has been since 2016 the first and so far only Secretary of State for International Trade, in which capacity he has been busy negotiating across the globe. He has been criticised for failing to sign any major trade deal in this time, although as that would be barred by EU law until actual exit, this is muted. He may be crippled politically by the mysterious Werrity scandal from his time as Defence Secretary.
Rory Stewart (Penrith and the Border); a recent declaration of interest. He is a soldier, and served in Afghanistan – his slight demeanour belies the reality of his physical achievements, recorded in his books. He is respected for his military past but hampered by having supported the Remain campaign.
Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey): Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary since Boris Johnson’s resignation and before that the longest serving Health Secretary ever. He also supported Remain in the referendum campaign but says that his has since changed his mind. He is well regarded in his current role and did well also in the thankless job of Health Secretary and, remarkably, seems to have got through it without becoming a pariah. Well liked and perhaps seen as a safe pair of hands, he is saddled with his previous support for Remain, and a reputation as a social liberal.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove): Home Secretary, talented certainly, if lacking in warmth, but tainted by having been on the Remain side at the referendum.
These are not the only declarations so far. Time will tell how expose to the race affects perceptions. The wider membership of the party has strong opinions within it, but they only get to choose out of the final two – it is Conservative MPs who draw the shortlist up, and if they knock out the most popular candidates, little can be done about it.
There has been talk that this time there will be no coronation; that the members will have a genuine choice of two, but it is still open to MPs to choose their preference and a cypher as his rival to fix the result.