OPINION - The next Conservative leadership contest has started

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaking during the National Conservatism Conference at the Emmanuel Centre, central London. (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaking during the National Conservatism Conference at the Emmanuel Centre, central London. (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

In late 2009, Kate Moss sparked a worldwide backlash when, in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, the model revealed her mantra: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. I fear that for context, I should add that I first came across this motto second-hand, from the golfer Colin Montgomerie.

This quote will, I hope, become relevant later on as we turn to British politics, and the rather odd beauty pageant taking place to become the next Conservative leader. That there is no vacancy, and that Rishi Sunak will lead his party into the next general election, is beside the point. A period in opposition would be sweet sorrow for ambitious cabinet ministers.

If anything, the prime minister’s relative strength within the party empowers rivals to make their case to members and donors. Each intervention is not seen as an imminent threat, but instead part of the long game, or in US parlance, the invisible primary.

Losing power does funny things to political parties. Labour kept the show on the road after 2010. Sure, the party may conclude it elected the wrong brother, but Ed Miliband was a plausible candidate for prime minister. It took a second defeat for the party to truly give up on electoral politics. This was actually an improvement, in that Labour normally tears itself apart straight after defeat.

On the other hand, the Tories have historically responded rather better to being booted out of office. You don’t become the most successful political party in the democratic world without being able to dust yourself off, adjust your sails and go again. The period after 1997 was therefore the exception, not the rule. But the omens this time are not good.

It is not yet possible to state with any confidence whether Keir Starmer will win a majority at the next election. But without a substantial change in the Tories’ political or the country’s economic fortunes, he will be prime minister. In that world, what Labour does and how its own internal divisions manifest themselves will be the main political storyline. But the direction the Conservatives take will make for a fascinating B plot.

If they can limit losses and wake up on election day +1 on 250 seats, the Tories may see sense in electing a moderate leader and sticking together to make the new government’s life as difficult as possible. But if they fall below 200 seats, and it looks as if they will stay out of power for the medium term, electing a popular, median voter-friendly leader may not be top of their agenda.

Like Labour in 2015, which opted for Jeremy Corbyn, MPs and party members may conclude that if they can’t win in the country, they might as well elect someone who makes them feel good about themselves. For the same reason that, if the diet is going badly, you might as well reach for the good ice cream.

To that end, Conservative Party members may opt for the full fat of Suella Braverman and her anti-immigration posture or Kemi Badenoch’s anti-woke agenda. Recall that members previously chose Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson over Jeremy Hunt when offered the chance. Indeed, had Andrea Leadsom’s 2016 campaign not self-imploded, who is to say whether prime minister Theresa May might never have happened?

More often than not, parties choose their most electable leaders only in times of desperation, when they have been out of power for long enough – most recently, Tony Blair in 1994 and David Cameron in 2005. But when your seats around the cabinet table are still warm, and power seems a mile off, the temptation for parties to go with the candidate who makes them feel comfortable is all too great. In those times, nothing tastes as good as getting exactly what you want.

In the comment pages, Anne McElvoy predicts the result of the nail-biting Turkish election will affect us for decades. Nimco Ali says she quit her Home Office job because she hated Suella Braverman’s views on refugees. While Katie Strick doesn’t know how she’ll survive the loss of her lido, as London’s blue spaces disappear.

And finally, the lactose intolerant look away now. Clare Finney serves up the best cheeseboards in the capital.

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