I used my last blog to explain why I had taken the decision to vote Leave in the EU referendum on 23rd June and I just want to start this one by saying how delighted I was by the result. I always tend to treat voting in a rather theatrical manner but for this one I really pulled out all the stops. I got dolled up for the occasion in a blue suit with a white shirt and red tie and handkerchief (the national colours), wearing my Union Flag cufflinks, and took along my own Parker fountain pen to vote with. This pen is now a treasured possession, as I used it to help set this country free.
I stayed up watching the results come in on tenterhooks. It was amazing how the body language changed in the BBC studio once the results for Newcastle and Sunderland were announced. I stayed up long enough to see a whopping 69% of Basildon Borough residents vote to leave the EU (on a turnout of 74%). I have never been more proud to call this borough home!
I fell asleep at some point in the wee small hours and by the time I woke up again around 5:30am, it was all over. It felt like awaking in a new world. I have to be honest, my gut reaction on seeing the result was “Oh sh**! What have we done?” But then I calmed down and realised that, to our great credit, and despite all the scare stories, threats and intimidation, half-truths, and character assassinations, the great British people believed in themselves and voted for freedom and democracy and to re-join the community of nations as a fully-fledged independent country. I do, however, have the humility to acknowledge there are difficulties ahead and a large part of the burden of dealing with those difficulties is going to fall upon my party, the Conservative Party.
As the current party of government, we Tories now have an important job to do to steer us through this exciting new phase in our history. The most important first step in that process is going to be selecting a leader to man the helm as we do that. I should say from the outset that I was saddened by the resignation of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. I have not always been a devout ‘Cameroon’ by any means and I was certainly far from happy with his conduct of the referendum campaign, but none of that can detract from his enormous contribution to my party and to our country over the eleven years he has been our leader and his six years as Prime Minister, not least in delivering the referendum in the first place. He conducted himself with great dignity in accepting the verdict of the British people and, while I think he could potentially have stayed on, I can see why he decided to go and I personally wish him well. He has been a great leader of my party and a fantastic Prime Minister and has achieved much during his time in office for which all Tories may be justly proud.
Since the announcement that there will be a leadership election, I have naturally been asked by many people who I shall be supporting as the next Conservative Party leader and, ipso facto, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This is a hugely important decision and may well be the first time any party, in choosing its leader, has effectively been asked to directly select a Prime Minister. Obviously, whenever the Conservative Party chooses a leader, we do so on the basis that we are hoping they will become Prime Minister but this time the person will be picking up the baton and going straight into the job to see out the rest of the Tory Party mandate received at the 2015 General Election, so it is a pretty awesome responsibility and it is important we pick the right person.
I have asked myself if it is really worth me publicly throwing my nominal weight behind any candidate at this time. I am not a Member of Parliament and will not have a vote until the Parliamentary Party have whittled the five current candidates down to just two. Even before nominations had closed and the Chairman of the 1922 Committee announced the candidates, many friends and colleagues (including a number of MPs) had announced their backing for former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson MP (Con, Uxbridge & South Ruislip). This, in retrospect, was rather silly considering Mr Johnson had not yet formally declared his candidacy and, indeed, subsequently withdrew from the race. So I am conscious that I could well give my backing now to a candidate who does not end up in the final two. That will be a matter for MPs to decide but, as many MPs have yet to declare their support for one of the candidates and are presumably still making up their minds, I think it does behove those of us who are councillors and activists to pin our colours to the mast and give the Parliamentary Party a steer.
So, for those not aware, the five candidates for the Conservative Party leadership are the Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire), currently Welsh Secretary; the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP (Con, North Somerset), former Defence Secretary; the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Con, Surrey Heath), currently Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary and former Education Secretary; Mrs Andrea Leadsom MP (Con, South Northamptonshire), current Energy Minister; and the Rt Hon Theresa May MP (Con, Maidenhead), currently Home Secretary. I think we should be pleased, from the outset, at such a hugely impressive field of candidates.
According to the pollsters and pundits, Mrs May is currently the frontrunner but I can tell you all that I am firmly in the #AnyoneButMay camp. First off, she was a timid Remainer and, as far as I am concerned, anyone who backed Remain in the referendum need not apply. I am convinced that the next Prime Minister needs to be a Brexiter and I think that is vindicated by the fact that Mr Cameron felt the need to resign in the first place because he knew it would be an absurdity for someone who opposed leaving the EU to go to Brussels to try and negotiate the terms of our departure, so electing another Remainer would be self-defeating. So I effectively discount Mr Crabb for this same reason (though he has a compelling backstory (£) having been raised by a single mum on a council estate in Wales).
The Conservative Party is a very broad church and contains many disparate schools of thought, many of which overlap, but I am fairly firmly in the libertarian wing of the Party and Mrs May is very profoundly not in that wing. As Home Secretary (the longest-serving in modern times), I have qualms with many aspects of Mrs May’s record, notably things like the Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act, which was an act so illiberal it was later ruled illegal by the High Court, and her decision to opt into the European Arrest Warrant. These are things that would have made even Lord Blunkett blush during his own draconian term of office under the late Labour Government. That is not to say that Mrs May could not be an extremely capable and impressive leader of our Party but she and I hail from very different wings of Tory political philosophy and in the most important question facing our country for a generation she essentially went to ground and hid. Now, some might say the fact she kept her head down and stayed out of the referendum displays shrewdness but I think it belies a degree of political cowardice, so she would be my last choice for leader on that basis.
I want to say a word or two about Dr Fox, not least because my good friend Emily Barley, founder of Conservatives for Liberty, has made such a spirited and impressive case for his candidature. In many respects, Dr Fox is the best fit for me personally and ticks many of my boxes. However, he is the only veteran of the 2005 leadership election standing this time, so is already a ‘loser’ in my eyes, and I just cannot get away from the Adam Werritty stuff. Dr Fox was a senior Cabinet minister holding an extremely sensitive portfolio (Defence) and he essentially allowed this dubious character unprecedented access to the MoD. I believe Dr Fox has many admirable qualities and it could be time to bring him back into government to redeem himself but the Werritty incident showed a serious lapse in judgement and I do not think it would be appropriate to install him as Prime Minister. I would like to see him return to the Cabinet though, as he is an important political thinker and we need his kind of thinking at the heart of government.
So that leaves me torn between Mr Gove and the relatively unknown figure of Mrs Leadsom. I should start off by saying that I am a huge personal admirer of Mr Gove, I thought he was an excellent, radical, reforming Education Secretary, and I have tremendous respect for his piercing intellect. I have to say, I also think he deserves a special vote of thanks for sparing us all the prospect of a Boris premiership! The former Mayor is a great character and popular with the public but I do not believe he has the substance to be Prime Minister of this country. His procrastination over whether to throw his hat in the ring for the leadership, mirrored his earlier lack of haste in declaring himself for Leave, which displays a degree of political calculation I find uninspiring. This is in stark contrast to Mr Gove, who was one of the earliest senior politicians to declare for Leave. That said, I suspect the manner in which Mr Gove is perceived to have ‘knifed’ Mr Johnson in the back will ultimately work against him. Mr Gove may have saved us from Boris but, in so doing, scuppered his own chances.
This rather bitter personal clash between the two leading Brexit campaigners is clearly very unfortunate. Throughout all this, I have been watching Mrs Leadsom very carefully. Andrea Leadsom is a name few outside the Westminster bubble will have heard of but I have heard her name mentioned approvingly as ‘one to watch’ for a couple of years now. Friends of mine, people I respect, who work in Westminster, including one who works directly for Mrs Leadsom, are glowing in their praise for her personal warmth, intellectual prowess, and campaigning zeal. One cannot even dismiss my friend’s effusive praise as simple employee bias – he hero worships Mrs Leadsom in a manner more akin to an acolyte than an employee. Notably, she has won the backing of our own local MP for Basildon & Billericay, John Baron (once he had decided not to throw his own hat in the ring!).
Mrs Leadsom did emerge as a serious force during the EU referendum campaign and she was extremely impressive in the televised debates and turned a lot of heads. Her parliamentary experience is limited but that is not necessarily a bad thing. She has real world experience in business and, crucially, is a ‘true believer’ in Brexit. From listening to her and speaking to friends and colleagues who know her better, I have been reassured that she has the passion and drive to deliver on the opportunities of Brexit. She has a firm understanding of the financial markets and, although arguably less experienced in parliamentary affairs than the rest of her rivals, necessarily brings less ‘baggage’ to the table than the other candidates. I am therefore, for what it is worth, throwing my meagre weight behind Andrea Leadsom to be the next Leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I very much hope that she will make it to the final two and be put to a vote of the whole Party and I look forward to seeing her performance in the leadership campaign. I think she is going to impress a lot of people! She certainly impresses me.