It’s the first round of MP balloting in the Conservative Party leadership election today, with five candidates for them to choose from: Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom, Stephen Crabb, Michael Gove and disgraced former minister Liam Fox who resigned in disgrace.
Now, you might wonder just what Liam Fox is doing there apart from reminding people that he’s a disgraced former minister who resigned in disgrace but for once in his career, he’s actually providing a useful service. He has effectively no chance of winning the leadership, and very little chance of not finishing fifth in the first round of MP voting. In the system the Tories use (MPs vote in successive ballots with the candidate with the least votes dropping out after each vote until only two remain, who then go to a ballot of the party membership) this means his leadership campaign will be finished shortly after 4pm this afternoon after providing us with an answer to the question ‘how many Tory MPs would want a disgraced former minister who resigned in disgrace to be Prime Minister?’ However, by being part of the contest he is providing a useful service in ensuring that none of the slightly more serious candidates (none of whom have yet resigned in disgrace from anything) get eliminated in the first round.
As I’ve written about before, the first stage of a Tory leadership election is a very complicated situation of tactical voting for all involved. As well as the contest for overall victories, there are other contests going on to show who is the strongest candidate for a particular faction. In 2005, David Cameron and David Davis weren’t just competing with each other but with Kenneth Clarke and (pre-disgrace) Liam Fox, respectively, to be seen as the lead candidate of their wing of the party. There’s a similar struggle going on this time, with May and Crabb pitching themselves for the Remain side of the party while Gove and Leadsom duel over who’s the most hardcore Leaver. The presence of a fifth candidate, almost certain to come last in the first round, means that this is purely the preliminary round of those contests, allowing the four non-disgraced candidates to see their initial levels of support, safe in the knowledge that they’ll all make it to the next ballot on Thursday.
When there were only four candidates in 2005 this preliminary phase of voting for the four key candidates didn’t happen. Ken Clarke was not only beaten by David Cameron in the contest for the modernisers’ vote, he came fourth overall, kicking him out of the contest and not giving him the chance to refine his pitch or negotiate with Cameron over the value of his voluntary withdrawal from the contest. Adding a fifth candidate into the mix allows for a momentary pause before the real contest begins with Thursday’s ballot.
So, despite his presence reminding people that a disgraced former minister who resigned in disgrace can still be taken seriously as a leadership contender in the modern Tory Party, Liam Fox is providing a useful service by standing. His defeat gives a little bit of space to the other candidates, and an opportunity for them all to try again on Thursday.