Choosing a new party leader is always difficult, but particularly so when your party is in Government. You are choosing not just a leader, but a Prime Minister. Today, I and other Conservative MPs cast our first vote, starting a process which will end with the announcement of the winner on September 5th.
To make matters more complex, there is such a wide field of candidates – eleven still in the race as I write. Conservative MPs will have to reduce the list to two, before it goes to Party members for a vote. So what are we looking for in a new leader? And who best fits the bill?
There are many reasons MPs support a candidate, not least because we know the candidates personally. Junior ministers generally support their cabinet bosses and regional MPs may band together behind a candidate from their neck of the woods. But our next Prime Minister needs to be someone who can lead the country, unite the party, and win the next general election. So what are the criteria?
First, you look at the issues. All candidates should be scrutinised on their views when it comes to the big-ticket items – Ukraine, immigration, and Brexit amongst them - but the biggest single challenge we face as a country is the economy. The new leader must be someone with strong economic credibility. That means someone who understands business and can make the tough decisions to balance the budget, as well as someone who will push for lower taxes.
We need someone who can credibly talk for Britain on the international stage. They will represent us in meetings with other global leaders, and in international organisations. After Brexit, they need to be able to forge constructive relations with countries across the globe.
The new leader should have experience of Government and know how to pull the right levers to get the machine to work. We have been in power for 12 years and are awash with credible candidates with experience of Cabinet.
We need a leader who is a beacon of probity. After the Boris Johnson years, the Conservative Party’s reputation has taken a battering on the trust and integrity front. We cannot have a new leader prompting a new round of sleaze storms.
They must also restore our reputation for competence, something else that has taken a battering in the Johnson years. We need to restore it. We need a leader who is not just a good communicator but has a proven track record of being capable of delivery.
It needs to be someone who can unite the country by leading from the centre ground, appealing to voters from across the political spectrum. It needs to be someone who can appeal to voters in the North and South, in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as and England.
So, who does this all point to? In contrast to opposition claims that we have a dearth of talent, I am struck by how many credible candidates we have. Our problem is we have such a wide choice, and I would be genuinely happy with many of them.
But like all MPs, I must choose. So, on the ballot later today, I am going to put a cross next to Rishi Sunak.
As a member of the Treasury Select Committee, and now chair of the Backbench Treasury Committee, I have worked closely with him since he became Chancellor, and have found him genuinely impressive. He is rational and reasonable, with good judgement and communication skills, and a very decent person. During the pandemic, he handled the most difficult challenge the Treasury has faced for decades, saving millions of jobs and thousands of businesses. He is clearly strong on the economic front, and I know he wants to cut taxes once we have the fiscal room to do so – but we need to be responsible. He has a proven record of getting things done. I would also be very happy if my party produced not just the first woman prime minister, but also the first ethnic minority one.
The campaign will be a true test for all candidates. As in every ballot, almost nothing is certain. May the best person win.