Who's the Tories' six million dollar man?

Image caption Some of the names in the frame: would Priti Patel, Rory Stewart or Grant Shapps provide the magic the Tories need?

Remember the Six Million Dollar Man, the 1970s TV series in which an injured astronaut was equipped with super-strong mechanical limbs and ultra-acute senses?

I've often wondered if its tag line, "we can rebuild him, better than before, stronger...." was the inspiration for a number of projects on the Labour benches of the Commons in the last Parliament, where teams of MPs toiled to retrofit potential leadership challengers with such qualities as people skills, a sense of humour, policy grasp, or a political cutting edge.

With Jeremy Corbyn now secure in the Leader of the Opposition's office, their dreams have come to nothing....but over on the Tory benches I suspect a number of like-minded political engineers are seeking a suitable case for treatment.

The Conservative troops expect a Boris vs Amber leadership battle, when the moment comes for Theresa May to make way for the leader who will take them into the next election, but there might well be a wild card....a Macron, if you like.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Could another 'Macron' be hiding in plain sight among the Tory ranks?

To be sure, the British political system stacks the deck against a Macron-style pop-up political party, but the sight of a leader coming from nowhere to score a stunning electoral triumph attracts political romantics, and fascinates hard boiled professionals.

And fresh from their duffing-up in June, the Tory search is on for a middle-ranking minister with perfect teeth, a floppy fringe and a photogenic spouse, who can be moulded into a cyborg warrior capable of doing battle with Jezza.

After all, it's not as if this most protean of political parties has not pulled the trick before - John Major was virtually unknown outside Westminster a year before he became prime minister; David Cameron leapt to the Tory leadership on the basis of a good conference speech and a couple of femtoseconds as shadow education secretary after the 2005 election...

As Steve Richards writes in his new book, The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost its Way, political outsiders can be a potent force in politics, as Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated; the Conservative Party does not easily produce such figures, but the manoeuvre pulled off by President Macron to run as an outsider, despite being a quintessential product of the French political establishment, suggests that a gleaming new figure, untainted by years of infighting, can cut through - especially if they are not over-encumbered by ideology and faction.

Another key design requirement for the new Tory Terminator will be emotional intelligence - an ability to connect and empathise as effectively as Jeremy Corbyn did, and Theresa May didn't.

In the process, some traditional requirements may be watered down; beyond a minimal level of competence, ability as a Commons performer probably matters less these days - and the public may find mastery of its traditional debating style rather suspect and inauthentic. If there is a lesson to take from the last couple of years in politics, it is that what pleases the troops on the green benches of the Chamber seems to leave the country cold.

Maverick or mainstream?

So who might be in the frame? There are few obvious challengers within the Cabinet, although Priti Patel has her fans. Beyond that there are several middle-ranking figures who might emerge like (and this is all my speculation) Graham Brady, the formidable chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, or slightly maverick ministers like Rory Stewart, or Jesse Norman.

Then, there are current "outs" like Grant Shapps or the former chief whip Mark Harper, and a little further down the pecking order there are figures like Tom Tugendhat or Johnny Mercer, who have a sparkle of stardust about them.

But they need to be fairly non-factional figures and, I suspect, the winner will be the one who hits upon a position on Brexit that both fits the circumstances as they will be in 2019, or whenever (and who knows what those circumstance will be, it may be more a matter of luck than judgement) and does not alienate a critical mass of MPs.

The early symptoms of an embryonic Tory Macron are an interest in refining the party's "offer" for the next election, and an attempt to find ways of reaching parts of the electorate who have succumbed to the blandishments of Jeremy Corbyn.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Striking the right note on Brexit will be crucial once the time for a leadership contest comes...

They will strike up conversations in the Tea Room or the coffee queue at the Portcullis House. They will be found in earnest conversations with colleagues and be remarkably receptive to invitations to speak on any subject, anytime, anywhere. Of course, they will be available for media appearances at the drop of a hat.

And they're in no hurry. The Tory succession race is going to be a marathon, not a sprint, allowing candidates to hone their offer to MPs and demonstrate their political skills in Commons speeches and questions, in the select committees, at party conference in the TV studios and (but, of course) on social media.

And as they pound through the course ahead, factional credentials and Brexit positions will count for a lot, but above all, a bruised and traumatised Conservative Party wants a winner.

If you are an MP nursing a fragile majority, nothing matters more than that.

BOOKtalk with Steve Richards will be on BBC Parliament on Saturday 8 July at 20:45 BST.