Theresa May’s speech yesterday afternoon represented a last roll of the dice, gambling on cobbling together a cross party consensus to land a Brexit deal. It is clear this morning that this has manifestly failed. The headlines will make for painful reading in Number 10.
The ‘new’ deal has been resoundingly rejected by all of the key parliamentary caucuses it needed to win support from, and yet the government is insisting this doomed deal will be put to a parliamentary vote the week after next. It would take a remarkable turn of events for this to pass.
And then what? May has confirmed she’ll set out a timetable for her departure following the vote. This is likely to happen quickly, a contest that has already begun, and is moving rapidly into an open battle between candidates (now numbering at least 15) ahead of Summer recess in late July.
The prospective leaders jostling for position fall broadly into three camps – the Brexit purists, the One Nation Conservatives, and those that are trying to appear as potential unifiers sitting somewhere in between, or even with a foot in both camps. Clearly Boris Johnson is an early front runner. But history shows that the leading candidate does not always win. The key milestone is whether Boris makes it into the final two candidates put into the run-off to be voted on by the Conservative membership.
Received wisdom in Westminster is that if Boris is in the final two, then he wins. Conservative Home’s polling of members (admittedly self-selecting) indicates this is likely with Boris leading the field with 32%, followed by Dominic Raab with 15% and Michael Gove as the best of the rest with 8%. But already there is an ‘anyone but Boris’ campaign gearing up with some MPs asserting they wouldn’t serve under PM Johnson, including the Scottish Conservatives who, led by Ruth Davidson, have said they would break away and form a separate group. Questions remain as to whether the anti-Boris movement is as strong as it was last time around. Some conservative commentators have suggested a Boris-led campaign would be most likely to shake the confidence of the Corbyn-led Labour Party, and even Amber Rudd welcomed his endorsement of One-Nation conservative values.
Which candidate the European Research Group supports will be key. There is likely to be at least three prominent pro-Brexit candidates, and it is not clear that Boris can automatically command total support. He’s already starting to triangulate by trying to appeal to more centrist minded colleagues – tweeting a glowing endorsement of the One Nation caucus’ principles in response to their launch earlier this week. It’s quite a high wire balancing act as the more of the old Boris we see (liberal minded, open to immigration, keen on public spending), the less support from his ERG comrades he can automatically rely on.
As the contest evolves, the support attached to individual candidates will coalesce around a small number of front runners – probably in pro and anti-Brexit camps. At this point king or queen makers can trade in their committed supporters in exchange for a promise of a plum job in the new administration. It is quite possible that Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd will fall into this category. Dream tickets may emerge as prospective Chancellors add their support and run alongside their preferred leadership candidate.
Throughout the campaign Boris will also have to carefully consider what type of PM he actually wants to be. If he’s successful, the commitments he makes in this campaign will be hung around his neck for years to come. Political strategists would argue that a candidate runs most effectively by appealing to their base to gain the nomination, and then pivots to the centre once in power as open tent unifier of the divided country. But if he is bound by his campaign commitments (particularly on Brexit), he may find it difficult to command a majority of MPs once he gains the top job.
In that situation a General Election becomes almost unavoidable. However, with the two main parties facing a mauling in this week’s European Elections, no Labour or Conservative MP is likely to be relishing the idea of going back to the country any time soon.
Buckle up everyone. It’s going to be a bumpy ride – and it’s only just getting started.