Conservative chairmanship no longer appeals to big names, senior Tories warn

Priti Patel - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Priti Patel - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

The Conservative chairmanship has been drained of its power and no longer appeals to big names in the party, senior Tories believe.

Priti Patel, the former home secretary, is pushing for the role to be restored to its former prestige because she fears only “lightweight careerists” would accept it in its current form.

A source close to Ms Patel, who is popular with the Tory grassroots, said accepting the job would make sense to her only if she was given the capacity to “actually make an impact”.

The source said bringing her back into the fray would be a “shrewd move” to unite the party but she considers the chairmanship “too weak” to achieve the changes she feels necessary.

“Anyone taking it will get the blame in May [after the local elections] – only a lightweight careerist would want that if the role is actually impotent,” the source said.

Another former Cabinet minister told The Telegraph: “I think that the party chairman should have a say in policy in the run-up to the next election. I think it has been downgraded... The most important thing is it’s a role that senior players would want to do.”

The post remains vacant after Nadhim Zahawi was sacked over his tax affairs on Sunday. When Cabinet posts are vacated, a replacement is often announced on the day or soon afterwards. No announcement has so far been made.

Lord Hague has ruled himself out, while allies of Penny Mordaunt, the Commons Leader, have played down speculation that she could take the role. Brandon Lewis, a former Cabinet minister, had also been tipped but is said to feel he has done the job already, having held the post from 2018 to 2019.

On Wednesday, Downing Street dismissed claims Rishi Sunak was struggling to fill the vacancy as “speculation”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said it was taking “a bit of time to make sure that it is the right person” chosen for the “important role”, refusing to comment on when asked whether anyone had rejected the job.

Ms Patel is understood to be keen on the post only if the chairmanship is bolstered with powers reminiscent of the Thatcher era. Past chairmen including Lord Parkinson and Lord Tebbit made public interventions on key policy issues and had central roles in forging election strategy.

The former home secretary is among several allies of Boris Johnson to have joined calls for “disenfranchised” Tory members to be empowered to pick the next chairman.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said she had not seen “any suggestion” that Mr Sunak would opt to have members vote for Mr Zahawi's replacement.

The spokesman insisted Mr Sunak “trusts the party membership” and was merely taking time to ensure the new chairman was the “right person for the party”.

Stephen Massey, the Conservative chief executive, is currently in charge of party affairs on an “interim” basis.