‘It is odd that wealth and position should play a part in Tory leadership considerations —but again they surely will’
“This is inverted snobbery. I thought I was running for the leader of the Conservative Party, not some demented Marxist sect.” So said Douglas Hurd in 1990 during the Conservative leadership race when he was challenged in an interview about his Eton education, his grand country house and his 500 “not particularly good” acres. The Conservatives made much of Hurd’s successful opponent John Major’s humble roots during the subsequent 1992 general election, with their election poster: “What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister.”
Class and money have featured in Tory leadership elections ever since. In 2005 front-runner David Davis tried to make his own working-class, single-parent background work for him—and was planning to make a thing of it after he was elected—but without success against Old Etonian David Cameron. How will privilege and underprivilege play out in the Conservative leadership election now upon us?
Clearly two candidates will make much of their origins: Pakistani bus-driver’s son (we will all end up heartily sick of this phrase if he becomes Prime Minister) Sajid Javid and Liverpudlian Esther McVey. The latter has even launched a group called Blue Collar Conservatism.
After graduating from Exeter University, Javid had a successful 19-year banking career before entering politics. His entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, however, suggests affluence rather than vast wealth—there is a house in Bristol and a house in London that are rented out.
MPs have to declare individual shareholdings valued at more than £70,000, but not if they are held in a “blind trust” (i.e. the beneficiary cannot know how they are invested), which is the case with ministers. If investments are held in a collective product such as a unit or investment trust they also do not need to be registered. The shareholdings which appear on the register are thus nearly all in smaller family businesses or in businesses set up by MPs in a previous career; they are very rarely in the large publicly-listed companies which would have been much more common 20 or 30 years ago.
This is partly due to wealthier MPs favouring the privacy they gain from investing in collective products but, more importantly, changed investment patterns. Many fewer people think it a good idea these days to invest large sums in a range of blue-chip companies and just hold on to them for years or even decades. For these reasons, the Register is much more informative about property, substantial family interests and even very modest income from outside work than it is about investments.
The standout business success among this year’s roster of candidates is Jeremy Hunt. Together with a childhood friend, Hunt set up Hotcourses, the world’s largest educational courses database. He stood down from day-to-day management of the business on being elected to the Commons in 2005, but continued to be a substantial shareholder. The business was sold in 2017 for £30 million, with Hunt’s share of this being £14.5 million—clearly a resounding success but not on the same scale as the business careers of Tory leadership candidates of an earlier generation. Michael Heseltine, a contender in 1990, set up Haymarket Publishing, and the Sunday Times Rich List still values him at £281 million, albeit a fall of £34 million since last year.
The two Old Etonians in this year’s race, Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart, will surely have the fact of their rarefied education constantly thrown at them, just as it was at Hurd. But the fact that it is one of the things that is best known about Boris will give it much less traction.
Where Johnson might come up against envy among fellow hacks is with his prodigious journalistic earnings: he is paid £250,000 per year for his Telegraph column. His journalistic income from other sources is much more normal: £350-£800 for pieces for the Spectator, £2,000 from the Mail, £376 from the Washington Post and £435 for Ukrainian rights for one of his books.
Johnson’s earnings from speaking engagements are what a well-regarded ex-Prime Minister might expect to receive, not someone who has not yet served in that office. Between December 2018 and March 2019 Boris earned more than £240,000 from just four speaking events. This included £122,899 for a speech in March to India Today in New Delhi. It is surely not for his political insights that he is paid so much but rather for his celebrity.
Michael Gove is Boris’s competitor—or was during the period he was out of ministerial office—in the high-earning journalism stakes. Gove’s contract with The Times was worth £150,000 per year. He was also a well-rewarded public speaker, although not in Boris’s league: he was paid between £5,000 and £15,000 for speeches.
As Hurd pointed out nearly 30 years ago, it is odd that wealth and position should play a part in Tory leadership considerations—but once again they surely will.
The added complication this time is that it is likely that the contest will go all the way to a membership ballot between the top two contenders. The Conservative membership will feel very short-changed if they are again denied the choice, as they were in 2016 by one of the candidates, Andrea Leadsom, pulling out.
This will be the first time an incumbent party’s membership has been able to choose a new party leader and thus the Prime Minister. In the 1990 Conservative leadership election only MPs had a vote, which was also true of Labour’s 1976 election. In 2007, when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair, a members’ ballot was theoretically possible, but the Brown camp managed to avoid it by obtaining so many nominations from MPs that there were not enough left to nominate any other candidate. In 2016 Leadsom withdrew, handing the Tory crown to Theresa May.
In a membership ballot, if Boris is on the ballot, he will probably win. But if he is kept off it by his fellow MPs, many Conservative Party members will be so outraged they may give up on the party entirely.