This is the race the Conservative Party didn’t want. A contest set for spills with few apparent thrills for a party, an electorate and a country fatigued by the sheer boredom of the Brexit nightmare.
Would-be successors to Theresa May didn’t even wait for the official starter’s gun on June 10 before they were crowding the paddock, preening, panting and pacing. First to arrive was Boris Johnson, who has been preparing largely by following the Hamilton line “talk less, smile more” – not easy for the Bullingdon boy. Despite a fancy launch video, Johnson was slow to get out of the starting blocks thanks to the threat (now gone) of a court appearance.
Others have filled the void: Dominic Raab sounding more than vaguely misogynistic, and Esther McVey playing the populist card but dropping a clanging dud, with parental advice on teaching children about same-sex relationships.
But beyond the candidate launches, (and already the withdrawals from the likes of James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse) all we’ve heard so far is the reaction of Toryshire. The heartland parents and grandparents – those who haven’t already been lost to the seductive lure of the Brexit Party – have been having their say across the nation’s media, and have been placing their bets.
But what is missing so far from the debate are the voices of young Conservatives. Until recently a dying breed, party members under the age of 25 have become increasingly vocal in recent years. Certainly at my university they’re a strong, spirited and active group. I tapped into the current crop – and their national network of student friends, constituency colleagues and recent graduates to see which way they feel the wind is blowing as the 11 runners and riders jostle for their vote.
One political adviser told me:
The mood is dire among MPs and staff alike. Utterly depressing, it’s a total deadlock and it’s hard to really see a way out. Everyone agrees May had to go but not because they think anyone else could necessarily do a better job. It’s a shame Liz Truss isn’t running. Both she and Penny Mordaunt are very popular among my younger friends. Rory Stewart is also discussed a lot.
The adviser noted one particularly striking difference between older and younger party members. He said that while elderly members love Johnson, “almost all young Tories seem to dislike him or at least recognise he’d be bad news or at least risky”.
Raab, a former Brexit minister, seems to have his detractors among the young insiders, and Michael Gove is no favourite either – being described by several who spoke to me as “odd”. One person who is rated highly in the Westminster Tory village is hard Brexiter and former leader of the House Andrea Leadsom – not least for her work as Leader of the House on bullying culture in parliament.
One Midlands Young Conservative chairman summed up the view of a number of his colleagues, wishing that hardline Brexiter Steve Baker could have the job. “He’s not a consensus politician – he is a conviction politician. He’s so very principled; he voted against the withdrawal agreement in all three presentations of the bill.”
This differentiates Baker from many of his rivals as he’s seen to be less opportunistic than Johnson and less expedient than Raab. But with hours to the final deadline, he doesn’t seem to be running.
It appears that the idea of a “clean Brexit” is thriving in the Leave-leaning Tory heartlands among young members, even if it has little traction around Westminster, where those who are sceptical of leaving the EU without a deal, such as Jeremy Hunt, Matthew Hancock and Sajid Javid, all have their supporters.
In university towns, the message is a little different. Some students seem to view Stewart as a viable compromise candidate and more in touch with what was described to me as: “The thinking Tory.” He is seen as part of the next generation of leaders with the right blend of charisma and intelligence to carry both the party and the country – much more the cosmopolitan than Baker, whose appeal appears to dwell more among the bar room politicians of the Conservative heartlands.
Both Johnson and Raab have their supporters (Gove only drew one vote from the dozens of Young Tories I’ve spoken to and engaged with on social media – and that was before he admitted to using cocaine in the past) but the front runners are not duplicating that excitement among young Conservative party members who will soon be electing their new leader and almost certainly the country’s next prime minister. “Boris is a chancer”, summed up one student: “A bit like Trump, this is all about him, not the country or the party. And as for Gove, we already know he has the capability to stab his friends in the back.”
In 2018, parliament recorded Conservative Party membership as 124,000 with 83% aged 45 and above. The base figure is now higher (not least through an influx of Purple ex-UKIP Tories), but many of those, largely older voters, could be lost to the Brexit Party. Young Tories have regrouped through initiatives such as Blue Beyond and are making their voices heard louder and more eloquently than for a generation. It’s surprising that candidates aren’t courting them more.