Who Labour wants as Tory leader – and who it fears

A question that shrewd Conservative MPs will be asking themselves this week is: which of the candidates for the party leadership will Labour fear most?

Here is the poling evidence we have so far. Last week both Opinium and YouGov asked respondents to rate each of the contenders they expected to stand. Opinium asked whether the candidate would make a good or bad Prime Minister; YouGov asked whether they would make a good or poor party leader. These are the net scores (good minus bad/poor) for those who have said they will stand – plus Priti Patel, whose intentions were uncertain at the time of writing. (The figures for Conservative and Labour voters relate to the way people voted in 2019..)

The first point to note is that all of YouGov’s scores for all the candidates are worse than all of Opinium’s. In each case, it would seem that some voters rate each candidate more positively as a prospective Prime Minister than as a future party leader. This is one of those situations in which the precise wording of the question matters. Advice to journalists: as more poll results are published, make sure you compare like-with-like if you want to see which candidates are gaining momentum and which are slipping back. Comparing one week’s YouGov findings with another week’s Opinium results will lead you badly astray.
However, both sets of figures tell broadly the same story: Rishi Sunak is the most popular (or least unpopular) candidate, while Priti Patel is toxic among voters in general, and even scores badly with those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election. Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Grant Shapps and my former YouGov colleague, Nadhim Zahawi, also have weak reputations. In between Sunak and the failing five are Sajid Javid, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat.
Javid’s figures are striking. He scores particularly well among Conservative voters as a prospective Prime Minister. Among them Opinium puts him only just behind Sunak. But Tories are evenly divided on whether he would make a good party leader. Do some Tories see him more as a national leader than, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “one of us”?
Those are the numbers. What should we make of them? Here we must take care. Some candidates are far better known than others. More than three-quarters of Opinium’s respondents have a clear view of Sunak and Patel. The gulf between the two of them in public esteem is real; and while their figures might change a little in the next few weeks, they are unlikely to change much. In particular, Labour would surely relish taking on Patel if she becomes Prime Minister. For Tory MPs to back her might be an act of principle or ideological fervour; it would not be an act of electoral sanity.
At the other end of the knowledge scale are: Tom Tugendhat (65 per cent admit they “haven’t heard enough of them” to take sides), Penny Mordaunt (61 per cent). Grant Shapps and Nadhim Zahawi (both 47 p[er cent). As they become better known, more people will form a view; but whether those views will tilt towards to favourable or unfavourable is impossible to say.
Does all that mean we can give Labour no advice on who to fear beyond Sunak and who to relish beyond Patel? Not quite. Mountains of polling evidence tell us that parties cannot win if they are perceived as extreme. Labour crashed to terrible defeats under Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn; likewise the Tories under William Hague and Michael Howard. Not the key word here: “perceived”. It’s what voters think that matters, not what politicians claim for themselves. All four of those leaders maintained that their views chimed with those of middle Britain (these days, perhaps more accurately, middle England). Sadly for them, too many voters thought otherwise.
What Labour should fear most, then, is a Conservative leader who can persuade voters that they belong to the political mainstream. Sunak is the most obvious and best-known candidate who fits this particular bill. Would his opposition to “fairy tale” tax cuts put him at a disadvantage? Probably not. Historically, the Tories have traded successfully, decade after decade, as the party of economic competence. This has included a prudent approach to public finances. Implausible promises of unfunded tax cuts risk undermining that reputation. Sunak’s fiscal caution is likely to impress voters more than the shiny promises of his rivals.
Apart from Sunak, who are the candidates whose mainstream politics might worry Labour? Tom Tugendhat is a one-nation Tory with two big advantages: an impressive army record before he entered politics, and the fact that he was never one of Boris Johnson’s ministers. His commitment to “a clean start” is credible.
Jeremy Hunt should also enjoy the benefits of being mainstream and remaining on the back benches throughout Johnson’s premiership. Yet YouGov and Opinium agree that he is unpopular. He claims his six years a Health Secretary as a political asset; perhaps the harsh truth is that, with the NHS now in all sorts of trouble, it looks like an electoral liability.
Sajid Javid and Penny Mordaunt are more intriguing. They are tacking to the right in order to woo their fellow Conservatives, but both have kept some distance from their party’s Brexit fundamentalists. If either of them became Prime Minister, Labour would certainly try to paint them as extremists; it’s not sure whether that attack would succeed. Mordaunt’s back story – spending her gap year working in Romanian orphanage, and later one becoming a reservist with the Royal Navy – could appeal to voters fed up with the mendacious egotism of the Johnson era.
Who would Labour prefer to take on if they can’t have Patel?  Of the ones with some prospect of surviving the early rounds of voting by Conservative MPs, the answers must be Truss. True she voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, but she has recanted in the manner of an ambitious Cardinal appeasing the Borgias in 15th century Rome. And she burnished her right-wing credentials with her contribution ten years ago to the laissez-faire bible, Britannia Unchained. The very qualities that might appeal to Conservative grassroots are those that could be exploited by a smart Labour campaign at the next election.

This blog was first published by Prospect