04 June 2019, The Tablet

The Tory leadership race is a 'fiasco' with hidden depths

A candidate proposing leaving with no deal as the reason for electing him or her will have to find a way of out-manoeuvring a solid majority of MPs

The Tory leadership race is a 'fiasco' with hidden depths

File photos of (top row left to right) Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart, and (bottom row left to right) Esther McVey, Matt Hancock, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove, who have all declared as candidates in the Tory leadership
PA/PA Wire/PA Images

In a process described by more than one senior Tory politician as a "fiasco", 12 contenders for the highest office in the land have volunteered, in effect, to form a circular firing squad. After several rounds of gunfire, the last two standing will be submitted to a beauty parade, to be judged by members of the Conservative Party on their suitability for promotion. The main criterion, it would seem, will be a commitment to deliver Brexit on or before Halloween, the Eve of All Saints Day, with or without a deal.

Now there's the snag, or two. "A deal" means something very similar to the agreement Theresa May negotiated with the European Union that was rejected by the House of Commons three times. The EU has repeatedly said that come hell or high water that deal will not be reopened. It is a "take it or leave it" deal.

One might reasonably conclude that the same deal submitted to the House of Commons by a new Prime Minister will suffer the same fate. The particular bit of it that was most disliked, the so called Irish backstop, is logically necessary because of the need to avoid a hard and visible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while treating Northern Ireland as subject to the same customs regulations as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Assuming that last requirement stays, and none of the candidates has so far been brave enough to question it, then leaving with a deal seems a route firmly blocked with Road Closed signs. So that leaves the other possibility being dangled before Tory Party members as they decide who to vote for - leaving without a deal. Current information is that the majority of them actually prefer it. But that also has been rejected by the House of Commons, though it remains the legal default position. So a candidate proposing that as the reason for electing him or her as the new prime minister will have to find a way of out-manoeuvring a solid majority of MPs, who will be determined by the end of October to have another set of Road Closed signs in place.

So this is a fiasco with hidden depths. Somebody is leading somebody up the garden path. This is not good for the country. Sooner or later, when Brexit promises are seen to have been broken by the Conservative Party once more, there will have to be a reckoning. But there is a further snag lying in wait. If having reached the end of every cul de sac a new Prime Minister passes the buck back to the country at large, either by means of a further referendum or a general election, what happens then? The second largest party in the House of Commons, Labour, is manifestly unfit to govern under its present leadership, and the polls make it obvious that the country already knows that. And a referendum could well produce the same result as last time, dumping the whole Brexit mess back into the lap of those who created it.

As Sherlock Holmes famously said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." And all that remains is Revoke. It means informing the Europe Union that the notice of intention to leave, given too hastily and with no preparation by Theresa May more than two years ago and equally recklessly endorsed by the Opposition, is being withdrawn. Revocation of that notice is possible under EU law according to a judgement of the European Court of Justice in a case brought by, among others, the Scottish National Party.

It doesn't really matter whether you or I believe that is a good thing or a bad thing. It is unavoidable, inexorable, inescapable. We have lost control of Brexit, and all the promises of the dozen of candidates lining up to lead the Conservative Party are already meaningless.

Which is probably just as well.

By the way, Andrea Leadsom will not be the next Tory leader and Prime Minister. That much is clear from the ConservativeHome website, which monitors support among MPs for each of the 12 candidates for the succession to Theresa May. Mrs Leadsom comes bottom, with three known supporters. (Boris Johnson is in the lead, with more than 30). To be elected leader, she would have to come top or second, to be one of the two names to be submitted to the Party membership. In 2016, Mrs Leadsom was runner up to Mrs May, though she dropped out before the actual vote. Such is politics.



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