Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beyond 23rd June

I have seen a number of deeply depressing articles suggesting that anger and hostility generated by the present EU referendum debate might continue to poison British politics in general, and relations within the Conservative party in particular, in the same way that anger stirred up by the 2014 Independence referendum has had a continuing effect on politics in Scotland.

I certainly agree that that is a potential danger, but I don't think it is at all inevitable.

An example of the sort of writing which I refer to is a recent article here by the normally very sagacious John Rentoul, chief political correspondent of The Independent, in which he argued that in the event of a win for "Remain" Conservative party members

"the ones who are overwhelmingly opposed to EU membership, would respond to defeat with the same respect for the sovereign wisdom of democracy shown by the Scottish Nationalists eighteen months ago. That is, they would immediately declare a moral victory and start campaigning for another referendum.  More importantly, they would believe that the world owed them compensation, and one of the forms this would take would be the succession to the leadership of one of their own."

I have a couple of reflections on this. First, although the arguments about Brexit have been nastier than David Cameron hoped, (and the press has been talking the splits on the subject up for all they are worth because splits are regarded as a good story) the level of anger is not remotely in the same league as we saw in Scotland in 2014.

Are we anywhere near the level of anger, for instance, at which senior politicians attempting a walkabout could get mobbed, jostled and sworn at over which side they were supporting in the EU referendum, where eggs were thrown, tables of campaignh literature overturned by rivals, and the campaigns accused one another of organising bullying mobs, as threats, intimidation and abuse could be widely seen as serious concerns?

Those things did happen in Scotland in 2014 but we are not yet seeing the same degree of anger in relation to the EU referendum. Please God it will stay that way.

And second, the next Conservative leadership election may not be until 2019 and politics them may look quite different from today.

It is worth remembering that among the ranks of those who have attempted to predict Conservative leadership elections, those who got things horrendously wrong greatly outnumber those who have been right: the favourite never wins. That is why I tend to disagree with those commentators, both among those who have a positive view of him and those who don't, who think Boris Johnson is likely to be the next Prime Minister. He could be, but don't bet your shirt on it.

While it is always wise not to treat polling evidence as Gospel, such evidence is often more accurate than people's gut impressions of what is happening, and the polling information from YouGov, based on a poll of Conservative members in February about how they were likely to decide how to vote in the election of the next Conservative leader is informative.

Asked to pick which two or three criteria they would use to vote in the next Conservative leadership election, far and away the most popular responses were "Someone who would make a good Prime minister" and "Someone who has the best chance of winning the 2020 election."

And put like that, this finding sounds about as controversial as asserting that the Pope is a Catholic or the proverbial saying about the toilet habits of bears. What makes this interesting was that "Someone who would make a good Prime Minister" had the backing of two thirds of respondents and the candidate with the best chance of winning the election more than half, while "Someone who campaigned to leave the EU in the referendum" was only named by 20%.

If that polling is anywhere near accurate, a reputation for competence and ability to manage things, and a perceived ability to win elections, will be far more important to those who elect the next Conservative leader than which way they voted in a referendum which may be three years in the past.

Of course, if Boris Johnson is perceived in 2019 or whenever the election is held as having those qualities he might well be the next Prime Minister. But a lot of things could happen before then.

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