Others have published running lists of the announced supporters of various candidates for the Conservative leadership; interpreting it must be an exercise in political psychology, reaching deep into the various motivations of the ‘most sophisticated (or possibly ‘most devious’) electorate in the world’.
It begins to look like the Wars of the Roses, decided not so much by sword, lance and pike but by the shifting personal chancing of the nobility who supplied the armies, seeking favour and patronage from the winner. The Conservative leadership contest works the same way (though with less bloodshed).
The government is not one man or woman but a team, whoever wins, but the Prime Minister makes and breaks them, and any MP pausing over where to lend his support will have an eye on the favour of the winner.
The wars of York and Lancaster lasted just through the reign of one unfortunate king, King Henry VI, with odd rebellions later until Stoke Field, but the political aspect shows in every local village history (which I spend too much time reading) – estates were seized for treason and granted to new men who lent arms to the winner, and lost again as the time turned, and might be regained in a successful rebellion. Some too gained estates, raised armies with them and them sought more by a rebellion.
Firstly, the candidates all broadly stand for the same thing – they are all Conservatives. Therefore whoever wins, Conservative MPs should be able to work with him, whatever they say now. It is just a question of expected favours.
There are those backbenchers who can pledge their votes according to their genuine preference because they know they are stuck on the back-benches and so are not waiting on the favour of the victor. They might have no further realistic ambition – just because they are jobless, that does not leave them without influence as many have other roles that keep them busy. That is the most honest phalanx.
At the other end are those who consider themselves so irreplaceable that they are secured a place in government whoever steps into Downing Street. If they appear too partisan in favour of one favoured candidate then they can still fall, but it may be safe to speak kindly of several and vote for a popular no-hoper, like Rory Stewart, and wait for the call to carry on as before. (They still have to avoid being seen speaking for a poisonous candidate, an unrepentant Remainer, but until last weekend there was none to avoid.)
The more interesting group are in the middle – those whose future careers depend on whoever wins. There each must tread carefully. Amongst these are most ministers, which is why they have been largely silent. A winner will want dependable supporters around him, and look for enthusiastic partisans – Boris has Liz, who may expect a good cabinet position in return – but if the gamble fails then the backbenches await the fallen. Buckingham won his titles and estates from the House of York in this way; and lost them when he overreached himself.
Then there are backbenchers will no hope of promotion unless they catch the eye of a Prime-Minister-to-be, and they just have to pick the right one, the likely winner, and be seen to shout loudest in his favour. If they lose, they slink back to their farms, but if they win then titles and offices are his.
(I should be called to order by our late patron here: Thomas Hobbes abjures us that:
“they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for, and thereby deceive others.
Therefore I must take care in overreliance on the metaphor and hope that it will not deceive me, nor of course the readers of this piece.”
With that warning in mind, I should no prolong the metaphor too long. It is Shakespearean though in places, is it not? Shakespeare watched the ridiculous, dangerous court politics of the Elizabethan ages and saw little men lifted up and great men tumbled down and wrote of the Plantagenet court as if of current affairs.
Whoever then stands on the steps of Downing Street, they will make enemies, from those they have not favoured as they believe they deserve. As Clifford says:
“The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.”
Shakespeare had Warwick say:
“Tell him from me that he hath done me wrong, And therefore I’ll uncrown him ere’t be long.”
– but this time there is no kingmaker.