Osborne remains in pole position but history suggests much can change
As the Tories head to Manchester for their annual conference, we can expect a triumphalist mood, in defiance of what have now also become annual protests outside. Having delivered their first overall majority since 1992, David Cameron can expect a hero’s welcome.
This particular moment in history may turn out to be the high water mark of the PM’s career, though. We already know that Cameron will step aside before the next election, triggering a leadership contest, for which positioning is well under way. These contests can be brutal and divisive.
It is impossible to judge the motives behind Lord Ashcroft’s explosive, deeply embarrassing biography of Cameron, which dominated the news last week. Some say the peer is motivated by revenge and personal animosity, but another theory is that this is the beginning of a coup from the party’s Right.
Remember that the last majority Tory government was ripped apart by divisions over the EU, and the planned In/Out referendum could have the same effect. It will certainly play a huge part in the leadership contest.
At present, I only have one live bet on this market from March, when I backed George Osborne at 9.4 (11%). Widely credited as the architect of that election victory and driving his Labour opponents in disarray, the Chancellor is now down to clear favourite at 2.8, rated 36% likely to be Next Conservative Party Leader.
Everything right now points towards Osborne but, before taking these short odds, remember that no early favourite has won a Tory leadership race since political betting was invented. Things change very fast in politics and there’s no shortage of alternatives.
So over the next week, keep an eye out for would-be rivals, most notably London Mayor Boris Johnson – the most popular politician of his generation. His conference speech always dominates the week’s TV coverage, and we should be looking out for dividing lines between him and Osborne, especially in relation to Europe.
This is more than just a two-horse race, though. At this stage of the last two Tory contests, the eventual winners were outsiders – Cameron around 16/1 in 2005, Iain Duncan Smith 33/1 in 2001. In between, Michael Howard was 14/1 just a couple of days before taking over in a coronation, after the unpopular IDS was ruthlessly deposed mid-term.