Why a brief membership stage of this leadership contest is right for the country and the Conservatives

We will know the winner of the first stage of this Conservative leadership election by next Thursday, June 20.  And as matters stand, we should know the winner of the second stage by Friday, July 26.

Which means that this last stage will be about half the length of its most recent predecessor – the leadership contest of 2005, which ran formally from October 7 until December 6 that year.

This timetable strikes the right balance between getting a move on (which is necessary when the Party is in government) and holding a durable contest (which is essential in any event), for three reasons.

First, the leadership contest between 2005 and this year, that of 2016, saw the membership stage of the contest curtailed.  Consequently, Theresa May’s person and platform were never properly probed.  This turned out to be a mistake.

Second, a brisk second stage of a month should roughly coincide with the start of the summer recess.  This will give the new Prime Minister a chance to get his feet under the table, form a Downing Street team, shuffle his Cabinet, show a new sense of direction, make some announcements and, above all, prepare for a No Deal Brexit if necessary – without Jeremy Corbyn and this Remain-leaning Commons seeking immediately to bring him down.  It will have its chance to do so, if it insists, during the early autumn session in September.

Finally, it is not obvious that Conservative MPs have made such a success of managing the Party that the members shouldn’t be allowed their say.  The hustings events will give them a chance to quiz, assess and test the candidates.

We say all this again because yet another story has turned up – in the Daily Telegraph, as they sometimes do – suggesting that there is another plot afoot to cheat members out of a ballot.

The Telegraph is for Boris Johnson, its columnist, as are we (with reservations).  But it would suit neither the country nor the Party for him not to be rigourously tested, especially since there are lingering ambiguities about his Brexit policy.

Almost certainly, this latest wheeze will come to nothing.  The brief membership stage of the election will take place as planned.  Johnson will be immense media pressure and will make some mistakes.  And then, as so often in the past, recover from them – and be returned as the new Tory leader at the end of July.

In which event, everyone will get a bit of what they want.  There is a second stage to the election, but it doesn’t take very long.  MPs have their say.  So do Party members.  Johnson is tested, as he should be.  Think of it as a kind of medical examination.

If the Party and contenders can’t manage one without bleeding the patients to death, in a frenzy of blue-on-blue bloodletting, it doesn’t deserve to be holding this contest in the first place – let alone governing the country.

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Author: Paul Goodman

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