Right now I’m feeling pretty depressed about the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming the next Prime Minister. In order to move into Number 10, he doesn’t have to win an election, or even get the backing of the majority of Tory MPs. He just needs the support of Conservative Party Members and for enough MPs to be mad enough to put him on the final ballot.
Under the Conservative Party leadership election rules, MPs vote in rounds to eliminate the candidates until there are only two. These prospective leaders are put to the membership for the final decision. The number of Tory Party members unknown. As is much about who these people, who will be choosing our next Prime minister, are. We know that they are generally older than average, wealthier than average and more pro-Brexit than average, but that is about it.
I can believe that the majority of people who would pay money to be in the Tory Party want Boris Johnson, with all his bluster about a No Deal Brexit, as PM. I can also believe that enough Tory MPs are mad enough about Brexit, or are desperate enough after the kicking they got from the Brexit Party in the EU elections, to put Johnson to the membership. In other words: the outlook is very bad.
Johnson - I refuse to use the cuddly “Boris” moniker for a man who flirts so openly with authoritarianism - may be the front runner, but when I looked back at previous Tory leadership races I found that it has rarely been the frontrunner who won in the end.
Johnson was favourite to succeed David Cameron in 2016, until he was betrayed by his partner in Brexit, Michael Gove, who went on to detonate his own candidacy. Certainly, Theresa May was not at the front of everyone’s mind, partly because a Home Secretary had not become Prime Minister since James Callaghan. (Callaghan was also Foreign Secretary in-between being Home Secretary and Prime Minister. The last Home Secretary to move directly from the office to being PM was Henry Temple in 1859.)
It can be hard to remember what we thought about the 2016 Tory leadership race while it was happening. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to see now how May won, but it wasn’t inevitable at the time. So, I looked back at the odds various bookies had given the candidates in 2016. Contemporary odds from betting markets are a good aggregator of the prospects of candidates at the time.
What did the bookies say?
Below are the odds of the five leadership candidates in 2016 (expressed as a percentage).
May was the favourite, but Gove was high in the ranking. At that point it could have gone either way. From these odds, no one would have predicted that Andrea Leadsom would come as close as she did to becoming Prime Minister.
Going further back, David Cameron was not the front runner to succeed Michael Howard in 2005. Below are the odds of the five candidates back then:
David Davis was the front runner and the bookies also rated Ken Clarke’s chance of becoming Tory leader. It would have been smart to bet on David in 2005, but ultimately wrong.
This time it is harder to predict who will win as there are many more candidates. For ease, let’s look at the odds being given to the top five candidates according to the bookies:
Johnson is still the favourite, but Gove is close and Leadsom is not too far behind. This might indicate that Johnson has it in the bag, but the odds were wrong about Davis in 2005 and Leadsom’s performance in 2016. The Tory leadership race may yet surprise us. It also worth noting that neither Jeremy Corby or Ed Miliband were the favourites at the beginning of the two previous Labour Party leadership contests.
What does the data suggest?
I think we should focus more attention on Gove as a possible winner, as well as Leadsom and Dominic Raab as possible outsider candidates that may yet surprise us. I wouldn’t assume that Johnson has it in the bag because he is the favourite. I would, however, assume that the winner will be a Brexiteer as the Remain supporting candidate with the highest odds is Jeremy Hunt who is trailing the other top five.
As a Labour Party member, I’m opposed to all of these candidates and I think that any of them will be bad for the country. None are likely to tackle key issues such as rising homelessness, the housing crisis, the NHS crisis, the climate emergency, inequality, the rising use of foods banks and everything else the previous two Tory PMs have visited upon us.
My biggest worry right now is Johnson taking us out of the EU with a disastrous No Deal Brexit, which would be economic suicide and the effects of which will be felt by the poorest most acutely. I don’t agree with Gove on much, but I think he is at least not stupid enough to go for a No Deal Brexit.
Don’t assume it will be Johnson
Assuming that Johnson will definitely win will mean we don’t give enough scrutiny to the other candidates who may surprise us by ending up in Downing Street. All future Prime Ministers should be properly scrutinised before taking office. We must make sure no one slips in the back to Number 10 while we are distracted by the Johnson show.
The race to be Tory leader will doubtless have some surprises for us. It’s best for us to not be complacent. We need to look at the whole range of candidates and not just Johnson.