“If he has lost this seat, there will be much commiseration for him among Tories who know that he had a difficult business fighting their campaign, as well as holding on to this marginal.”
Those words from David Dimbleby, spoken while TV cameras zoomed in on Chris Patten’s downcast face as the Conservative party chair moments before it was announced he had been ousted as the MP for Bath in 1992, will be ringing in the ears of potential replacements for Nadhim Zahawi.
It has taken the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, six days and counting to find a new head of Conservative Central headquarters (CCHQ) – a sign of the tough sell it is proving.
Though it was a role treated largely with disinterest after the 2019 general election, the Tory chair becomes arguably one of the most important figures around the cabinet table in the run up to the next one.
The ideal candidate will be a well-connected fundraiser, helping boost the Tories’ coffers; an attack dog, up for countless media rounds and keen to hammer Labour at every opportunity; a cheerleader for members, who fires up activists amid the bleak polling backdrop; and an effective organiser, who can lead CCHQ and its staff.
They will also have to traipse around the country visiting candidates – staying overnight away from family (potentially at their own electoral peril) or travelling for hours on sleepy trains from far flung places to home.
An uphill challenge faces the Conservatives, as election strategist Isaac Levido reminded senior ministers at last week’s Chequers away day. Who present to hear of the “narrow path” to victory would enthusiastically pick up the mantle from Zahawi?
Oliver Dowden, Boris Johnson’s third Tory chair who quit after a series of embarrassing byelection results, is said to be keen not to reprise the role. As culture secretary, he is enjoying helping organise King Charles’s coronation.
Appointing someone not already in the cabinet has the added benefit for Sunak of meaning he can avoid a wider reshuffle and all the political blowback he may receive for those who lose out.
One of the most short-lived chairmen, Andrew Stephenson, has been suggested by senior party figures. He held the role over the summer and was widely praised for his handling of the leadership contest, but has a relatively slender 6,000 majority in Pendle, Lancashire.
Another person who has already done the job is Brandon Lewis, a long-serving cabinet minister who backed Liz Truss but was kicked out of government when Sunak entered No 10. His selection would be viewed as a sop to the former prime minister and her allies, who seem increasingly on manoeuvres.
There are some that think a “big beast” who will play to the base is needed, given the unhappiness of some members at Johnson’s ousting and the creation of the “Conservative Democracy Organisation”. It wants a say over the party chair and, while it is unlikely to get one, the appointment of someone like Priti Patel who could play to the right would galvanise the grassroots.
While personalities are important, meticulous delivery of “get out the vote” efforts, smart advertising and the recruitment of good campaign teams will make more of a difference on polling day.
The party is already suffering the loss of a big piece of institutional memory after the resignation of Darren Mott as chief executive in November.
However good a figure is lined up to replace Zahawi and turn CCHQ around, they alone will not be able to reverse the Tories’ hefty polling deficit. It will be up to Sunak to put an end to Tory infighting and sleaze, deliver on his promises and offer compelling policies to voters.