The eccentric and extreme nature of Brexit has led to some bizarre outcomes. Perhaps the strangest is that the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union has been downgraded from a national emergency to a party one. Instead of discussing ways out of the political, constitutional and economic crises that Brexit represents, those in the race to lead the Conservative party are finding ways of getting deeper into them. This can, in part, be explained by the mechanics of the debate. The main contenders are attempting to out-silly the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, who is peddling the fiction that he can get better Brexit terms by refusing to cough up the £39bn Britain has already agreed to pay. As Lord Kerr, former UK ambassador to Brussels, put it: “The unicorns are back, frolicking in the Tory forest.”
Because the electorate is the Tory party membership, it might make sense at this time to give full attention to the party over the competing claims of government and the nation. The trouble is that rather than doing so in a sensible manner, the contest to succeed Theresa May has seen candidates taking up surreal positions. This will have deleterious consequences for the nation. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who at one point had been sane enough to warn hard Brexiters that leaving the EU without a deal was “not a policy choice available to the next prime minister”, dropped out and backed Mr Johnson, who thinks it is.
There is no taxi ride to the door of No 10, where once the electoral fare has been paid there are no further obligations. All the potential candidates for the top job in the country must understand that their words will catch up with them. Their utterances will be used not just by their opponents, but also by allies required to prop up a minority government led by an unelected prime minister in charge of a party that remains at war with itself. It is natural for a PM to seek personal gratification in politics. But a leader must also have the patience to listen to the sentiments of people whom it may be imprudent to neglect but a bore to consult. It’s long been clear that Mr Johnson lacks such a skill set, preferring instead to dole out partisan cheer.
Grassroots Conservatives can hardly be said to be representative of the country as a whole, either demographically or ideologically. Mr Johnson’s supporters seem to be socially conservative no-dealers who want less talk of climate change. The pathogen of Euroscepticism in the Conservative party has taken to living in the party’s gut, and has to a large extent stopped its host absorbing food. This has meant the Tories have been unable to ingest all that Brexit involves. What is clear is that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated. It might be possible to lightly amend the agreement in some cosmetic way, but such an offer would fall short of the extravagant promises made on the campaign trail.
Mr Johnson is not shaping a trend, he is following one. It is a concern that a majority of Britons think the country “needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”. Tellingly, Mr Johnson last year pondered in a event with Tory activists how Donald Trump would get Brexit done. It was not encouraging. “He’d go in bloody hard,” Mr Johnson said. “There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.” The frontrunner has set the pace for the pack. Like lemmings at the cliff’s edge, Tory candidates are now steeped in denial of the risks they face. This will end very badly for the UK, and the Conservative party will have no one to blame but itself.