Magazine article The Spectator

If Not Dave, Then Who? the Parlour Game That Might Get Serious

Magazine article The Spectator

If Not Dave, Then Who? the Parlour Game That Might Get Serious

Article excerpt

Itis horrible to imagine. It would be a tragedy, for party and country. Even contemplating it seems lurid and, given recent events, deeply mischievous. It is certainly not something for loyal Tories to discuss in public. But, in their darker moments, few Conservative politicians will have not asked themselves the question in the past turbulent week: if David Cameron were to be run over by a bus tomorrow, who would lead the Conservative party?

At Westminster, it is amazing how quickly today's parlour game can become tomorrow's leadership battle. For those who prepare properly (as the Blairites did in 1994) the rewards can be immense. In Mr Cameron's case, what is striking is the fact that there is leadership speculation at all. After the triumph of the May local elections, the Tories seemed likely to be the single largest party in the next parliament. Now, after Labour's resurgence in the polls and the Tories' shambolic performance in the Ealing by-election, a very different prospect lies ahead of Tory MPs as they depart for the summer recess: a spring general election and the ignominy of a fourth successive defeat.

It is hard to pin down what, precisely, has happened in the last few weeks. Mr Cameron has carried on as before. Gordon Brown was always expected to have a honeymoon, as New Labour orchestrated a second marriage to the electorate. But something more basic has shifted: the 'plates', as John Prescott likes to say, are moving once more. As hard-headed a commentator as the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh has already written off the next election for the Tories: 'Brown will win, and win big.' Somehow the mood of politics in Westminster has changed fundamentally.

As the Sunday Telegraph revealed at the weekend, a handful of disgruntled Conservatives have already sent letters to Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee, demanding a vote of confidence in Mr Cameron -- an astonishing echo of the last days of Iain Duncan Smith. Lord Kalms, a major donor and former party treasurer, has taken to the airwaves to say to Mr Cameron: 'Look, chum, we need to do some rethinking.' An almighty wobble is taking place in Conservatives ranks, which runs well beyond the handful of malcontents seeking a change of leadership.

It is not that Mr Cameron is going to face a confidence vote (it takes 29 MPs to trigger such a ballot). It is that, mutedly, ruefully, and with varying degrees of anxiety, senior Tories are wondering what Life After Dave might be like. What, in other words, would happen if Mr Cameron were to succumb to the no. 137 bus? When I have put this question to shadow Cabinet members, a suspicious silence ensues, followed by protestations of loyalty. Then, eventually, their own detailed theory follows. This game of mental chess is second nature to serious politicians and, much as they may hate to admit it, the choice may not be so many moves away.

Though different in many respects from Cameron, George Osborne would be the continuity candidate: a moderniser to his fingertips. At 36, the shadow chancellor is four years younger than Mr Cameron -- the same age William Hague was when he succeeded John Major. His easy charm has translated into a loyal following among party donors.

He is telegenic, articulate and not deemed to be carrying much Old Tory baggage. He was privately scathing about 'hug a hoodie' and would certainly be tougher on crime and antiterror legislation than Mr Cameron.

Yet when Michael Howard initially approached Mr Osborne to stand as future leader after the last general election, he declined, telling himself he was too young, unready and risked ruining his career. Might the same calculation lead him to sit out the next leadership contest? There is no doubt that many senior Tories would urge him to stand -- especially if the other obvious candidate, William Hague, proved unwilling.

The shadow foreign secretary is on record as saying that leading the Tory party once in a lifetime was enough for him. …

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