Conservative Leadership Contest: What Made Theresa May the Most Promising Candidate?


Regardless of whether the long term outcome of the EU referendum proves favourable, catastrophic, or somewhere in between, what is certain is that the subject of Brexit has been a divisive issue, both in the Conservative party as well as in the parties of opposition. As has often been said of the current Labour coup against Jeremy Corbyn, the Tory leadership contest was commonly compared to a civil war-like struggle.

When observing the candidates who were defeated early on, it is clear that politicians from both the left and right of the Conservative Party  fancied their chances in the highest position. The moderate Remain campaigner Stephen Crabb certainly stood in stark contrast to the likes of Liam Fox, and yet both of them announced that they would back Theresa May following their withdrawals. An essential short term objective for Britain’s new PM is that of restoring party unity. After all, in 2015 the UK electorate voted for a united Conservative government, not one which is fragmented over the subject of Europe. The reconciliation of Eurosceptic and Europhile MPs in the Cabinet could only truly exist under a central mediator, thus making May the preferable choice for Tory leader.

This verdict was strongly challenged by those on the Leave side, including Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove, who made their sentiments clear that a Brexit PM would be able to take a more committed approach to Britain’s political separation from the European Union. Such an individual, however, may have engaged in the Brussels talks with a lack of caution, perhaps further aggravating what is already a sensitive diplomatic scenario.

Although the future leader will need to be respectful of the public’s decision to withdraw from the EU, electing Gove or Leadsom would have also ran the risk of alienating the sizeable “Cameronite” section of the Conservatives’ grass roots. On the day of the referendum, results showed that around 40% of Tory voters were in favour of Britain staying inside the EU. We only have to look at the number of Labour supporters who claimed to have defected over the election of Corbyn (over one fifth) to determine that a swing to the right could have equally serious consequences for the current government in terms of its public support. Therefore, May’s relatively neutral stance throughout the referendum campaign makes her the individual most capable of soothing the internal divisions within her party, whilst she is also someone who can acknowledge and act swiftly upon both the potential advantages and the serious risks of Britain’s forthcoming exit from the European Union.

As the party's constitution goes, Tory MPs will elect two of the contenders. The vote is then opened up to all Conservative Party members.
As the party’s constitution goes, Tory MPs elect two of the contenders. The vote is then opened up to all Conservative Party members.

When looking at experience, May is also the best qualified person to lead. She has served as the Home Secretary since the very start of David Cameron’s term in 2010. Her competence is demonstrated by the fact that she has managed to retain her role in national security, surviving several cabinet reshuffles over the past six years, making her the longest serving Home Secretary since Rab Butler (who left office in 1962). Though her former rival Gove also has a commendable track record, it must be remembered that he was transferred between the positions of education secretary, chief whip, and justice secretary – almost certainly ceasing to be the first of the three due to the vote of no confidence he received from the national teaching board. May, on the other hand, has yet to excite controversy on such a scale, and her continuity in the field of home affairs comes as a result of her success in ensuring public safety at times when threats to Britain’s security were said to be worryingly severe.

In addition to her experience at the Home Office, May served as the Secretary for Women and Equalities from 2010 to 2012 and supported both Cameron’s bill for same-sex marriage, along with his push for a more mixed-gender Cabinet than that which existed under many of his predecessors. With this in mind, May is the ideal choice for continuing Cameron’s legacy of ‘progressive conservatism’ which has gained the party support from so many younger voters in recent years, with statistics in Soton Tab estimating that around 33% of students at the University of Southampton voted Conservative in last year’s general election.

In her pitch for the position of PM, May raised two important points. Firstly, Britain will need a leader who is able to address so many issues other than Brexit, although she has never denied that securing the UK’s future relationship with Europe is a task which will need to be handled with considerable tact and care. Secondly, that she intends to combat the current climate in which politics is treated as a ‘game’ rather than a vital component to our public services; pragmatism being of great need in light of our current state of affairs.

No matter how anyone felt about the referendum’s aftermath, the sudden retreat of high profile Brexiters, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, suggests that many Leave campaigners were totally unprepared for the procedures which now lie ahead. With all factors considered therefore, a bold yet realistic Prime Minster like Theresa May is the most plausible remedy to these uncertain times.


MA History Student

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