I first wrote this piece six weeks ago. All the rankings and reasoning still apply!
Following the legalisation of betting shops in the UK, the first political market to capture public attention was the 1963 contest to become the next Conservative Leader. The favourite Rab Butler was turned over by Alex Douglas-Home – starting a famous run of betting upsets which would become part of political folklore. In short, the early favourite never wins.
We are on the verge of the latest, exceptionally wide-open renewal. Prime Minister Theresa May was matched at odds-on to leave office in 2018 and is trading at $1.60 to go before the end of 2019. Even if surviving, she has already committed to leave before the next scheduled general election in 2022.
What are the rules?
When May leaves, a contest will be swiftly called among Conservative members of parliament (MPs). Candidates – usually around five – put their names forward and are whittled down to a final pair. Then 120,000 or so party members decide via a run-off vote.
It doesn’t always work that way. MPs don’t always trust their members to pick a candidate they can work with and have been known to skip the final run-off. Two of the last three leaders – including May – were decided by MPs alone. There is talk of MPs choosing next time, before merely asking the members for their approval at a later date.
This last point is fundamentally important. As explained below, Brexit looms large over proceedings and a protracted, public leadership contest will be both ultra-divisive and terrible politics for the government.
My top-ten rankings
1 Michael Gove
Currently Environment Secretary, Gove has stormed to the top of the betting in recent weeks. He’s been in my plans for months for one core reason – he will run. Everything about his behaviour screams ambition and auditioning for the job.
If May goes imminently and an emergency replacement required to complete or renegotiate Brexit, nobody is better positioned. The party is overwhelmingly pro-Brexit and Gove is the most senior minister to have voted Leave in 2016. Unlike most Brexiters, he seems able to reach out to Remainer colleagues.
Support from Britain’s overwhelmingly pro-Tory press is always important, in order to win over this older than average electorate. The impeccably connected Gove landed the first interview with the new President Trump, while his old boss Rupert Murdoch sat in the room. Mrs Gove, aka Sarah Vine, is also a leading journalist at a Tory newspaper, the Daily Mail.