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The Race to Succeed Cameron

A checklist for who’s running for what in the British government now that David Cameron has bowed out.

July 4, 2016

A checklist for who’s running for what in the British government now that David Cameron has bowed out.

The top contenders for the Conservative Party leadership – and thus for Ten Downing Street – are Theresa May and Michael Gove. There are three other declared candidates, but they are certainly trailing at present.

The selection procedure is that the Conservative Party’s MPs whittle the candidates down to two by a series of exhaustive ballots. Then, the wider party membership chooses between those final two contenders.

Theresa May: The woman who wanted to “Remain”

Theresa May is seen as the safe pair of hands. She has been a competent, if unexciting Home Secretary for the past six years. She may have offended both sides during the recent referendum campaign.

The Leave campaign had some hopes of recruiting her, but she declared for Remain. Having made the declaration, she took little further part in the debate.

That was somewhat surprising, considering that the widely discussed question of immigration is within her government portfolio.

In her own defence, Mrs. May could argue that she did set out a robust position of immigration to a House of Commons Select Committee early in the campaign.

At that occasion, she said that there was a problem with refugees. This would cause the government to miss its commitment to reduce net immigration, but this was not the fault of the EU: it is because of other international and humanitarian commitments the UK has made.

May’s greatest strength is that, even if she has offended both sides, she has at least done so equally. She is also the oldest of the candidates, and ambitious younger MPs may see their best opportunity as succeeding her.

May will attract the obvious comparisons with Margaret Thatcher because they are both women. But this is a trait she shares with 30 million other Britons and it is seen in Conservative circles as neither a strength nor a weakness.

Michael Gove: The man who drove “Leave”

Michael Gove is anything but the safe choice. He is hyperactive, radical, and has often quite radical, if passionate views on every aspect of government policy.

Unlike the other leading Conservative in the Leave Campaign, Boris Johnson, no one thinks that Gove backed Leave out of personal ambition. It was a choice based on longstanding belief.

Gove would personally rather have maintained loyalty to his close friend, David Cameron, but he believed that Leave was the right option for the country.

Gove is supremely intelligent, perhaps too much so, and very keen on being a reformer. He wants to make government services work for people from modest backgrounds, such as his own: he was adopted by a middle class Labour-supporting family at four months old.

His strength is that the wider party membership probably wants a leader who supports the case for Brexit and is committed to making it work.

His weakness is that he alienates people. As Education Secretary, he pressed for all state schools to be “academies” (charter schools), a program begun by the prior Labour government. He also allowed Swedish-style “free schools” to enter the state sector and introduced a “pupil premium,” a higher per student fee paid
to schools for children from poorer homes.

But Gove’s reforms as Education Secretary and his personal manner irritated both teachers and civil servants. Cameron moved him to Chief Whip to keep him out of the public eye in the run up to the 2015 election.

The other contenders

Stephen Crabb has been low profile. He was Secretary of State for Wales, a job with far less responsibility as the Welsh Assembly Government has taken on more powers.

Earlier this year, he was promoted to Work and Pensions Secretary, running the largest department in the UK government, but has only held the role for a few months.

Andrea Leadsom has held government office below cabinet level and was widely seen as acquitting herself well campaigning for Leave.

For both these two, the leadership election probably comes too early. Meanwhile, for Liam Fox, who came third in the leadership election in 2005, it comes too late.

Below the top job

While all the leadership candidates can be seen as lacking something, there is no shortage of talent to fill the lower cabinet positions. David Cameron is retiring as Prime Minister, but not retiring from politics.

It is likely that the new leader will at least ask him if he wants to serve as Foreign Secretary. Former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home was the Foreign Secretary when Britain entered the EU in 1973. Perhaps another former PM will hold the role when the country leaves.

It is likely, however, that he will decline the offer.

If Theresa May wins the leadership, she will probably appoint a committed Brexiteer as Foreign Secretary to maintain people’s confidence in her commitment to the policy. That would probably mean Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling.

If Gove got the job as Prime Minister, he would start with more goodwill from the Brexit faction and could therefore appoint May or Defense Secretary Michael Fallon.

Certainly, Philip Hammond, the incumbent, needs to take some responsibility for the fact that the government faced a major defeat on this issue under his watch.

He will probably be offered a lower cabinet position such as Defense, Business or Transport, but he may not accept demotion.

What to do with Boris?

The big question facing the new leader is what to do with Boris Johnson. His quixotic manner would unsettle the financial markets and foreign allies, so Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary are both probably ruled out for that reason.

The senior post with most in common with his prior role as Mayor of London is Home Secretary. He would also be brilliant as Conservative Party Chairman. This is not a cabinet position in itself, but is often accompanied by a sinecure cabinet post.

However, with the general election almost four years away this might be seen as too small a job for Johnson.

And Osborne?

George Osborne probably needs to leave the Exchequer, where he has been based for six years. He, as much as Cameron, has been the strategist of the Cameron ministries.

Leader of the House of Commons would be a suitably senior role, and he could probably keep the honorific title “First Secretary of State.”

May would probably appoint Gove to replace Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer. If Gove got elected, he could give the job to Grayling or Fallon.

The deep thinker of the past few six years has been the brilliant, but diffident, Oliver Letwin. He currently heads the Cabinet Office, but a new strategy is now required and this job probably requires a Brexiteer.

This could be Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, or possibly a face from the past. There’s a case for saying that someone outside the government, but with past experience and the intellectual credentials for the job, should take this role.

Former Welsh Secretary, John Redwood and former Industry and Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley are both well-qualified. Former minister David “two-brains” Willets has not retired from politics and currently serves in the House of Lords.

Letwin could take any of the top jobs. He shares Gove’s reforming and decentralizing instincts, and Gove might like to appoint him to a front-line public services job such as Education or Communities and Local Government.

The Justice Department and the Business Department probably need people committed to the new strategy of Brexit. At Justice, the obvious candidate is Theresa Villiers, currently Northern Ireland Secretary.

She is a lawyer and a former MEP. Industry is another role for which Whittingdale might be suited, or perhaps one of the new Brexit-backers entering the cabinet: Leadsom or Priti Patel.

A UKIP man as part of the team?

There is no rule that a minister has to be a Conservative or has to be in either house of Parliament. Douglas Carswell, currently the UK Independence Party’s only MP, and a former Conservative is a very sharp thinker and instinctive reformer. He could bolster the team by taking a junior role at the Cabinet Office.

Daniel Hannan, the high profile Brexit campaigner and MEP, could take a role as a minister in the Foreign Office. Someone outside Parliament cannot head a department, other than temporarily, as departments are accountable to Parliament.

(Though the aforementioned Alec Douglas-Home was not in either house of Parliament on the day he became Prime Minister. He had resigned from the House of Lords and was actively seeking election to the House of Commons).

Hannan has the experience of European institutions and a passionate commitment to Britain’s post-EU future.

Certainly, if the Foreign Secretary was Cameron, May or Fallon, the presence of Hannan in the team would reassure those who doubted the personal commitment of the Foreign Secretary.


Theresa May’s strength is that even if she has offended both sides she has at least done so equally.

Michael Gove is hyperactive and has quite radical views on every aspect of government policy.

Michael Gove’s strength is that the wider party membership wants a leader who supports Brexit.

It is likely any new Tory leader is will ask Cameron if he wants to serve as Foreign Secretary.

One big party question facing the next Conservative leader will be what to do with Boris Johnson.