After Theresa has gone
If Boris Johnson becomes Tory leader, a general election will soon follow. If he wins that election, Brexit and a joined-at-the-hip alliance with Donald Trump is on the cards. Eddie Ford reports on latest developments and future possibilities
More than 20 MPs - and counting - have declared an interest in standing in the Tory leadership contest. Indeed, there are so many possible candidates that the 1922 Committee executive is considering changing the rules to allow four candidates selected by Conservative MPs to go on the final ballot paper that goes out to party members - possibly in a single transferable vote contest.1 Obviously, that would mean a huge boost for Boris Johnson’s chances, who is the runaway favourite among the rank and file, but might struggle to get the backing of enough MPs if the candidates to go before the membership are whittled down to only two, as stipulated in the current rules.
As for exactly when the contest formally begins, it could be very soon. Some commentators have dubbed it a “Tory Game of thrones” - though arguably a second-rate one on a limited budget. As we all know, the prime minister said she would go “after” her deal with the European Union has been approved by parliament - a prime example of creative ambiguity, since the chances of that happening are close to zero. Andrew Bridgen MP, the obnoxious ultra-Brexiteer, has said that he expects Theresa May to stand down before the emergency national convention of the party, pencilled in for June 15, in that way avoiding the humiliation of a vote of no confidence. A new leader could be installed within six weeks of her resignation.
All this is happening, of course, against the backdrop of May’s final throw of the dice - in the week beginning June 3 she will bring back her amended EU withdrawal agreement to parliament for the fourth and definitely last time (assuming the speaker, John Bercow, allows it). However, on this occasion, the debate and vote will be on the actual legislation - the Withdrawal Agreement Bill - rather than the previous, largely symbolic “meaningful votes”.2 In the extremely unlikely event that the WAB survives a second reading, MPs can then pile in with their amendments, such as a ‘confirmatory ballot’, Common Market 2.0, permanent customs union, etc. This is precisely why some steadfast Labour ‘remainers’ like Stephen Kinnock MP worry that if the WAB gets shot down in flames on the second reading, there is no other readily available mechanism to prevent the default option of no deal. In which case, taking into account the summer recess for parliament - plus the time-consuming Tory leadership battle - the October 31 deadline set by the EU is not far away at all.
Anyway, May has said that her new plan would be “big” and “bold” - though you can understand why it has been kept under wraps for so long. It will have to contain the toxic finer details on the negotiated financial settlement of £39 billion or more, and on restoring parts of the European Communities Act for the transition period. This would preserve the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, keep its citizens’ rights provisions in UK law and create an “independent monitoring authority” to ensure the UK complies, and so on. None of which will be music to the ears of Brexiteers.
But, giving us a taste of what is to come, on May 21 the prime minister delivered a relatively lengthy speech outlining her 10-point “new deal” … and, if anything, made things even worse. Desperately trying to woo remainers, she promised that if MPs supported the deal at its second reading she would offer them a vote on a second referendum - and be bound by the result. MPs would also be given the opportunity, she said, to vote on various alternative customs proposals. For example, they would get to choose between the much derided Facilitated Customs Agreement previously proposed by the government (and now back from the dead) and the compromise offer made to Labour during the ill-fated six weeks of talks: ie, a temporary customs union on goods only.
Additionally, May made a series of other pledges, including a separate bill to guarantee workers’ rights do not fall behind those in the EU and a guarantee that there will be “no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU”. Furthermore, she formally accepted the proposals made earlier by several Labour backbenchers that the Commons “will approve the UK’s objectives for the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU” and “will approve the treaties governing that relationship before the government signs them” - which, we were told, would be “set out in law”. When it comes to the dreaded Irish question - the bane of the Conservative Party - she admitted that it is “not possible” to replace the backstop insisted upon by the EU. But she did say that she intended to “place the government under a legal obligation” to finalise “alternative arrangements” by December 2020, thus in theory avoiding any need for the backstop to come into force. No, I don’t believe it either.
Needless to say, almost everyone hated May’s “new deal”, which was neither big, bold nor new - in reality, not one dot or comma of the withdrawal agreement has changed: merely old wine in new bottles. Jeremy Corbyn immediately declared that he will not back a “repackaged version” of the same deal voted on before, especially as it is abundantly clear that this “disintegrating” government will be unable to deliver on any commitments and promises it makes. Prime minister Johnson or Raab will just tear it up anyway, so why would Labour sign up to a piece of meaningless nonsense?
The response in Brussels, as if you could not guess, was one of “despair” at the emptiness of Theresa May’s “new” proposals - especially the suggestion that the government’s policy was to seek a customs arrangement that delivers the same benefits as today, along with the renewed ability to make independent trade deals - something comprehensively rejected last year by the EU. You cannot leave the club and expect to retain the same benefits and privileges. Entirely dismissing May’s new-old plan, a former European commission official, Mujtaba Rahman, said Brussels was no longer interested in negotiating with a zombie prime minister of a zombie government.
Naturally, Tory backbenchers and Brexiteers reacted to the “new deal” with a sense of incredulity, despondency, anger, rage and betrayal - the Democratic Unionist Party denouncing it as a hopeless “hodge-podge”. With the situation getting worse for the prime minister by the minute, the 34 Tory MPs who have already opposed May’s deal on three separate occasions show absolutely no sign of shifting their position - quite the opposite. In fact, those who did vote for her deal at the third time of asking - scared of losing Brexit altogether - are now reverting to their original opposition. And MPs who previously supported May’s deal all along are now expressing doubts. For instance, former minister Andrew Percy of the pro-government Brexit Delivery Group told the BBC that he found the prospect of offering a second referendum “really worrying” and the ultra-loyalist Stephen Crabb, another former minister, has gone on record to say he would “struggle” to support this bill.
Small wonder that the prospect has been raised of the prime minister pulling the vote in the face of such odds, as she has done before. Michael Gove struggled to confirm on the BBC’s Today programme that she will bring forward the WAB, as planned - he said it was important to “reflect” on “all the options in front of us”. Like summarily removing her as leader?
More directly, Nigel Evans - member of the 1922 Committee executive - said Theresa May should recognise it was “game over” and would press once again for rule changes to allow another vote of no confidence before the state of grace expires in December. Or go now and save the bother. In the same vein, Jacob Rees-Mogg of the pro-Brexit European Research Group hoped the prime minister would look at the lack of support for the WAB and finally recognise that she “does not command the confidence” of the Commons.
Meanwhile, the Tories will get the drubbing of a lifetime in this week’s European elections - the election that should never have happened and is viewed by many - but not by Labour nor the CPGB - as a second referendum on Brexit. Ironically perhaps, turnout will surely be higher than usual. The result will diminish her authority even more, if that is possible.
Boris Johnson was predictably the first out of the starting gates to become the new Tory leader - he is now the person to beat. Johnson has been assiduously courting Tory MPs over this recent period, meeting 200 of them in 15-minute individual sessions at his plush offices at Portcullis House - which must be rather exhausting, or boring, depending on which way you look at it. In a bid to widen his appeal and play up his ‘liberal credentials’, Johnson endorsed the mini-manifesto released at the beginning of the week by the One Nation group of 60 MPs unofficially led by Amber Rudd. This has fuelled fresh speculation about her acting as the kingmaker by backing a first-choice candidate and then pivoting to back Johnson in the last round if he were to be in a run-off with either Dominic Raab or Esther McVey - the latter this week launching her rival ‘anti-one nation’ group, Blue Collar Conservatism, promising to slash overseas aid.
What has Boris Johnson got to convince MPs to select him as one of the candidates on the final ballot paper? The answer is simple, of course. Johnson can plausibly claim that he can save their jobs, beat Jeremy Corbyn, see off the Brexit Party and even secure a substantial majority for the Tories in the House of Commons. Under those conditions, the Tories reinvigorated under a new leader, you can imagine Brexit actually happening - which has been impossible up to now, given that parliament has an inbuilt ‘remain’ majority and big business is hostile to a Brexit of any sort. After all, we have an American president who appears to be enthusiastic about Brexit and regards Nigel Farage as his favourite British politician - you can almost bet money that Boris Johnson will be his second favourite.
But, despite Johnson’s attempts to court centrist and liberal Tory MPs, there is a highly determined ‘Anyone but Boris’ group of between 80 and 100 who will try to prevent him from seizing the keys to No10 by any means possible - mainly involving a coordinated set of tactical voting for rival candidates.3 This substantial slate would leave Johnson needing the majority of the remaining 200 Tory MPs to vote for him if he is not to be knocked out early in the fight - a tall order. Aware of the plotting, legal advice has been drawn up by close allies of the former foreign secretary, who claim that action to thwart him would be in breach of the Tories’ leadership contest rules. MPs have no right to prevent a candidate from getting onto the deciding ballot if he or she has “significant support” from the party membership.
Johnson supporters are confident they would win if it came to a court battle - perhaps explaining the real reason why the 1922 Committee is now thinking about changing the rules on leadership contests.