THE Tories have not had a proper leadership battle since David Cameron came from nowhere in 2005 to deny David Davis the crown he had so long craved.

When Cameron resigned (eleven years, two election wins and one referendum defeat later), such was the chaotic bloodbath of the parliamentary Conservative party that Theresa May won simply by being the last person standing. Embroiled in the shock of the Leave vote, there was no debate in the party—and not even a ballot of party members—about where the next leader should take them.

Three years later, when it was Mrs May’s turn to leave, it was obvious from the beginning that Boris Johnson would replace her. He led from the front throughout the campaign and was never close to being caught.

And, as we all know, Boris was always about the man, the character, the presence, and never about substance, still less that most unfashionable (yet, you know, really rather important) beast, policy.

Now that Johnson has been ousted, in a style reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s demise in 1990, the party has the opportunity to think not only about who it wants to lead it, but about the direction in which the Conservatives should head from here.

There is no obvious successor. The current front-runner, Rishi Sunak, is nothing like so far out of reach that he cannot be caught by his rivals and, moreover, there are as many in the “Stop Rishi” camp as there are in the “Ready for Rishi” camp.

Not only is there no obvious successor: there are few big beasts in the race. This is a function of Johnson’s style of government. He did not appoint to his cabinets the best and brightest of the parliamentary party. He appointed according to the cult of loyalty, not according to talent. The two exceptions are Michael Gove and Ben Wallace.

The former was the only person in Boris’ cabinet who actually knew how to get things done, and the latter, as Defence Secretary, is as solid and capable and impressive a minister as anyone who has held that brief in wartime. Both, however, ruled themselves out of this race before it even got underway.

Of the Cabinet-rank candidates who are in the race, only Sunak impresses. Liz Truss will do well but won’t deserve to. Sajid Javid will fade away and leave no trace, as he has done in previous leadership races.

Grant Shapps was a joke and is already out. Suella Braverman is an embarrassment. Nadhim Zahawi impressed as vaccines minister but was marked as Secretary of State for Education mainly for being as not quite as woeful as his predecessor Gavin Williamson was (yes, the bar is set that low).

Zahawi has some impressive backers, however, and even though I do not expect him to get far in this race he may have a big part to play in the future, both in government and in the party.

Like Gove, he has a reputation for getting stuff done and, unlike too many in the party nowadays, he genuinely understands business. One to watch.

By far the most interesting candidates in this race are three who have not yet served at Cabinet level: Tom Tugendhat, Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch.

I know that this cannot happen, but just imagine if the MPs whittled the field down to this trio and there was a three-way campaign between them for the membership votes.

Even including Sunak, my view is that there is no-one who has served at Cabinet level who could compete with these three.

Tugendhat is the one I know best. Everything you have read about him is true. He understands the notion of public service and he practises it. He has nerves of steel, backbone to match, integrity, commitment, honesty and decency.

Among all the candidates he is best placed to re-establish Britain’s place in the world, post-Brexit, presenting the United Kingdom as a lead player on the world stage, both as regards defence and international security and as regards the global economy.

Mordaunt I know a little. A tremendous performer at the Despatch Box, she takes no prisoners in debate, she is always on top of her brief, and she has appeal across the party, having pulled off that trick of being pro-Brexit without being swivel-eyed about it.

Like Tugendhat, she has shown, over and again, exemplary commitment to the Union.

It is true that there is a worrying strain of English nationalism in today’s Conservative party. Unionists looking for a leader to stamp out that nonsense need look no further than a Tugendhat or a Mordaunt. This, I think, is why this pair have both attracted well-placed support in the ranks of the Scottish Tories.

Badenoch I confess I do not know but she has fast emerged as the surprise package of this leadership contest.

Michael Gove, so often the king- (or queen-) maker, was quick to come out in her support—a recognition that he himself must think there is no one among his erstwhile cabinet colleagues fit to lead.

Certainly, Badenoch is talking and writing as if she knows what she is doing and, along with Tugendhat and Mordaunt, she is bringing the ideas to this race.

Whilst the so-called big beasts of the Cabinet slug it out on tax cuts, the next generation of Tory leaders is showing that the future of the party is a good deal brighter than its recent past.

Even if the choice the party membership is asked to make next month is Sunak v Truss, it is clear that the heavy lifting needed after the leadership is settled will be done by a new generation of gifted Tory politicians.

Lord knows they will have their work cut out. With the party wallowing fifteen points behind Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party and an election to fight within two years, the Tories do not have long to sort themselves out.


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