August is the time of the year when lobby journalists love to speculate on leadership plots. If Jeremy Corbyn had done really badly in the June general election – it would be all about who is going to succeed him. But as it is Theresa May who lost her majority and authority – the speculation is all about who will replace her – even though she is at the moment determined there will be no vacancy. So I thought I would add my pennyworth.
The last Tory PM to be deposed in office was Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and she was at that point even more unpopular than Theresa is now. Her disaster was the poll tax – which was quickly replaced by the present council tax – after she stood down.
People forget that at the time John Major was the least known of the candidates who stood to be leader and PM.
Just as now the leadership favourites were big beasts – the two top runners were Michael Heseltine – who had resigned over a row over the fixing of an order for a new generation of helicopters in what became the Westland affair – and Douglas Hurd, a well known big Tory beast and foreign secretary. Both are now peers.
Heseltine was at the time a bit of a blonde bombshell – unpredictable and strident. Nicknamed ” Tarzan ” because- though he denies it – he was accused of swinging the Parliamentary mace in protest against Labour. Definitely regarded as leadership material – he had shades of Boris Johnson in his leadership claims for today.
While Hurd was seen as more thoughtful – just like Michael Gove who prides himself as a radical thinker – sees himself today.
But both these big beasts were trounced by the ” grey man ” – the relatively unknown John Major.
Today there is another relatively unknown man – a John Major for the 21st century. He is David Gauke. In the Westminster bubble he is known by the phrase ” Uncork the Gauke ” for his ability to smoothe over gaffes made by his then boss George Osborne in successive budgets. He is a safe pair of hands to send to Westminster and handle Opposition anger over ministerial mistakes.
He was first out of the traps to address the Westminster press gallery lunches this month – and came to put himself over as an agreeable lunch companion with a store of self deprecating jokes. He is also benefiting from Theresa May’s decision to promote him to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, presumably thinking like Thatcher about Major that he is no leadership challenger.
But don’t be fooled by his manner. At the heart of the man is a determination to continue the Conservative austerity programme. He was careful only to park plans to end the ” triple lock” on pensions and a new charging system for social care. He has since taken the decision to raise much earlier the pension age to 68 – something that was not in the Tory manifesto.
He also showed little real concern that benefit claimants had committed suicide as a result of a tough decisions. He came out in favour of means testing and to a question from me that his ministry was turning into the Department of Corporate Manslaughter – ignored the point – saying lamely that there might be mistakes by staff. There is a lot of difference between a mistake and a suicide.
A lot is at stake at the next general election – and Jeremy Corbyn has no longer that element of surprise that he is supposed to be a ” no hoper” to become PM. So expect the unexpected from the Tories – they will devise new ways to stay in power and an unexpected figure emerging as their leader could be one of them.