Who’s going to be our new PM? The Five Contenders in the Tory Leadership Contest

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If, like me, you’ve become accustomed to making a slightly later start over the summer, you probably also awoke to some pretty exciting news yesterday morning. That is, if you love a bit of House of Cards-style political drama as much as I do. In a course of events of which Frank Underwood would have been proud, Michael Gove threw his hat into the ring to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister and was sure to savage Boris Johnson in the process.

That really put the cat amongst the pigeons, as it led to the former Mayor of London withdrawing from the race. Johnson had been amongst the frontrunners, but Gove’s sudden about-turn completely changed the complexion of the contest: a choice between two such prominent figures would have made it very hard for either of them to win a contest, even if his former ally hadn’t questioned his leadership potential. Now the question is, who else will Gove have to take on? Here’s what you need to know about the people vying to be our new Prime Minister …

Stephen Crabb

Even if you follow politics closely, chances are you hadn’t heard of Crabb until he was promoted to the role of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in March. His relative lack of top-level experience is one criticism which he will face, though his previous role as Secretary of State for Wales should be recognised as it strengthens his claim to be the man to protect the unity of the United Kingdom. Crabb is seen as different to many Tories as he has a working class background, but some argue that he has betrayed these roots by voting in favour of the ‘bedroom tax’ and tax cuts for wealthy people.

The MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire was a firm believer in voting to remain in the EU and repeatedly stressed that the UK must accept free movement of people in order to ensure that it could trade with the region’s single market. Post-result, he has said that voters’ concerns about immigration must be addressed in any renegotiation. In addition to accepting the result and ruling out a second referendum, he has also suggested that we need to address the deep divisions in our society which have been laid bare over the past week or so.

Crabb has expressed misgivings about ‘instability’, implying that a General Election under his premiership would be unlikely. One of his priorities would be to make social mobility a reality for more people. Many believe that, in the event of a ‘Remain’ victory, his chances of success would be higher, although he is likely to be supported by Ruth Davidson, who was popular throughout the referendum campaign. Despite the fact that he has already been criticised for his stance on LGBT+ rights (he voted against equal marriage and has links to a group which believes homosexuality can be ‘cured’), Crabb denies being homophobic. In contrast, his experienced running mate, Sajid Javid, is seen as being socially liberal and has more progressive views on the rights of LGBT+ people.

Dr Liam Fox

Prior to this week, Dr Fox’s last moment in the headlines was when he resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in 2011. In what was widely described as a ‘disgrace’, he allowed one of his best friends to sit in on meetings at the Ministry of Defence despite him not having any security clearance. Despite this scandal, Fox (who held a number of senior roles whilst in opposition) still has enjoys the support of many comparatively right-wing MPs. As a Doctor working in the NHS, he also has much-vaunted ‘real world experience’. Nonetheless, he will no doubt face questions over his fierce opposition to equal marriage.

Within a group also containing Nigel Farage, Fox was seen as a ‘sensible’ pro-Brexit voice. He made arguments that leaving the EU would not mean war in Europe and would allow increased control over immigration. Dr Fox plans a hardline stance in any exit negotiations, with free movement unlikely to be accepted even as a condition of access to a single market, whose benefits he insists the UK can still enjoy from outside. The former Conservative Party Chairman (who is the longest-serving MP on this list, having racked up 24 years of service) has also advocated an Australian-style points system which will assess both EU and Non-EU candidates.

As somebody with experience in both healthcare and defence, Dr Fox argues that he would be the right man to lead on topics other than Europe. He also stipulates that he would continue the current regime’s work on welfare reform, saying he has no moral obligation to assist those who “will not help themselves”. Housing is another area where he can see room for improvement: he say that it should be as easy for young people to get on housing ladder as it was for previous generations, who must still be ‘looked after’. Insiders speculate that his bid is unlikely to succeed, but may land him a seat on the victorious candidate’s front bench.

Michael Gove

Although he has been praised for reforms which he has implemented as Secretary of State for Justice, many teachers and students will never forgive Gove for the upheaval which he presided over whilst in charge of Education. In contrast with many rivals, Michael Gove can be described as genuinely socially liberal: he was an early advocate for an equal age of consent in same-sex relationships and supported equal marriage. A former coalition colleague described Gove as “a bit of a Maoist” who thought that progress was a result of “creative destruction” – a statement which will unnerve many when his contemporaries are emphasising the importance of stability.

Over the past few months, Gove has been a key player for Vote Leave. He has repeatedly made points about the undemocratic nature of the EU and amount of money we contribute to it, whilst emphasising how the UK could thrive away from such an institution. As a result, his priorities in any talks will come as no surprise: in addition to a desire to “end the supremacy of EU law”, he also wants to ensure that money which could be spent at home is not sent overseas. Gove has also stated that he wants to ensure that the UK has control over its own immigration policy.

As this story is still developing, Gove is yet to release details of his plans if elected. We have been told to expect him to outline a vision which will provide “unity and change” over the coming days. Though on paper he is a serious, experienced candidate, the MP for Surrey Heath may struggle to win votes: his repeated insistence that he wasn’t interested in the top job and subsequent ‘betrayal’ of the man many people expected him to support will have added to the impression that he is not a man to be trusted, which began when he announced that he would campaign on the opposite side of the EU debate to his long-time friend and ally David Cameron.

Andrea Leadsom

Having only been elected in 2010, Leadsom is the candidate with the least experience as an MP, though she argues that this is not an issue. After all, David Cameron hadn’t been in government before being elected as PM, whereas she has served as Minister of State for Energy since 2015. During a televised debate, Leadsom came in for some criticism from Ruth Davidson after allegedly misrepresenting statistics about the number of laws made for the UK in Brussels, but Leadsom’s supporters argue that her Euroscepticism is a key reason why she is the ideal candidate: she has campaigned for many years to reform the institution. Though the region is not traditionally populated by a large proportion of Tory voters, party members in the north (and its urban centres in particular) may be concerned by her opposition to the HS2 rail project on the grounds that it doesn’t represent value for money.

As a committed Eurosceptic, the MP for South Northamptonshire argued throughout the referendum campaign that leaving was the only option. She attempted to present a positive image of an independent UK free from the shackles of Brussels, in response to perceived doom-mongering of ‘Remain’ supporters. Regaining sovereignty would be Leadsom’s primary aim in any negotiations with European leaders. She has downplayed the importance of single market access in favour of trade deals with the rest of the world and has repeatedly stated that immigration levels must be reduced.

Following the announcement of the referendum result, Leadsom stated that we should “make the most of Brexit opportunities” and details of her vision of the UK under her leadership are expected before too long. As somebody with 25 years of experience in the financial services sector, Andrea Leadsom would be seen as a safe pair of hands when it comes to looking after the nation’s finances and even if she is not successful in her leadership bid, many expect her to be in with a chance of replacing George Osborne as Chancellor.

Theresa May

The bookies’ favourite to move into Downing Street before too long has enjoyed a number of successes in her current role as Home Secretary. In addition to being one of the key figures behind the legislation which permitted equal marriage in the UK for the first time, May also stood up to the Establishment by supporting an enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster. In a blow to her socially-liberal credentials, May did consider leaving the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), which would have put basic human rights at risk, although she has back-pedalled on this issue since announcing her candidacy for leadership. Whilst May has won plaudits for reducing Police spending whilst keeping crime rates low, she has come in for some criticism after being tasked with reducing immigration and failing to do so.

Theresa May was supportive of remaining in the EU: her arguments revolved around the economic risks of leaving and security benefits of remaining, though she always maintained that the consequences of Brexit wouldn’t necessarily be end of the world. This stance has been praised, as has her idea to create a new department to handle exit negotiations. May’s goal would be to ensure trade with the EU’s single market but to have control over immigration and she has said that Article 50 (which starts the clock ticking, giving us two years to leave) won’t be triggered until a negotiating strategy has been devised. The Home Secretary has firmly stated that “Brexit means Brexit”: we must leave and there is no chance of a second referendum.

A General Election before 2020 has also been ruled out, and May has outlined why she should be the PM until then: she is committed to continuing Cameron’s work to reduce public spending, can offer strong leadership, is committed to protecting the UK’s unity and believes she is the right person to present a “bold and positive vision of a UK which works for all”.

Theresa May looks like the most likely winner as it stands and would be likely to offer cabinet roles to her rivals. However, given the current political climate, can we really predict what may or may not happen next with any degree of certainty?

– By Liam David Hopley

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