Since David Cameron’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term as Prime Minister, a lot of ink and electrons have been used to analyse everything any senior Tory politician does in the light of their upcoming leadership battle. This was particularly evident at the recent conference when journalists were lining up to proclaim the next leadership battle would be between George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
The history of Tory leaders, especially since they began to be elected rather than emerging from the ‘magic circle’ of party grandees, suggests that this might not be the case. We’re probably around three years or so away from that leadership election taking place and that gives plenty of times for new faces to rise. Indeed, looking at previous Tory leaders, very few of them would have expected to become leader or Prime Minister three years before it happened.
Edward Heath was the first Tory leader to be directly elected by MPs and while his defeat of Reginald Maudling was something of a shock, he had perhaps the highest profile of any Tory leader three years before election, sitting in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal in charge of negotiations to join the EEC, having previously been Chief Whip.
Margaret Thatcher was also a member of the Cabinet three years before her election, serving as Secretary of State for Education but I think it’s fair to say that she wasn’t considered a possibility as a future leader, not least because ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher’ was still fresh in people’s minds.
John Major’s rise was swift. Three years before he became leader, he’d just been appointed to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but was generally overlooked in discussions of future Tory leaders, which looked more towards the big beasts both inside and outside the Cabinet.
William Hague hadn’t even made it to the Cabinet three years before he became leader, still serving as a Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. He’d become Secretary of State for Wales in 1995 after John Redwood’s resignation, but even when he stood for the leadership, the focus was on other candidates.
Iain Duncan Smith had been a rebellious backbencher during the Major government, but was brought into Hague’s shadow cabinet. Three years before he became leader, he was shadow social security secretary, but future leadership attention was focused on characters like Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo (both of whom he’d defeat in 2001).
Michael Howard had been considered a future leader before but three years before he actually got the job he wasn’t in the front line of politics, having returned to the backbenches from the shadow cabinet in 1999.
Finally, David Cameron jumped from backbencher to party leader in three years. In 2002, he was part of the Home Affairs Select Committee and discussing drug decriminalisation still a good few months away from being given a frontbench role and two years away from his first seat at the shadow cabinet table.
As I’ve noted before, all political trends have a tendency to be great predictors of the future right up until the moment they fail spectacularly (ask anyone who was sure Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win) and this could be the Tory leadership election that breaks the trend of relative outsiders defeating the more established candidates. However, the Tories do seem to go to outsider or rapidly rising candidates much more than the other parties have in the past, and it’s entirely possible that the same may apply when their next leadership contest comes around. Consider that the current leading candidates will all be under intense scrutiny while trying to maximise their exposure, which could well lead to both MPs and party members becoming weary at the sight of them, let alone the prospect of them leading the party for several years.
A candidate who can present themselves as a relative outsider or newcomer but with some experience at the top could, with the right timing, develop a real momentum heading into the election that could take them past their overly-exposed senior colleagues. Who it might be, I don’t know, and there’s the possibility that a fluke could propel someone to prominence at the right time, but I’d look at some of those in the lower=profile Cabinet positions or just making their way up the ranks as Ministers of State. History suggests one of them is more likely to make it to the top than someone currently high profile.