Philip Hammond has warned Conservative leadership candidates they will not be prime minister for long if they pursue a no-deal Brexit, hinting that he and other Tories could be prepared to vote down the government in a confidence motion to prevent that outcome.
In a forthright interview, the chancellor reminded the hardline Brexit candidates – Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey – that parliament was “vehemently opposed” to leaving the EU without a deal.
Hammond said he would urge all his colleagues to “embrace the concept of compromise” and warned them not to “box themselves in” by promising to leave on 31 October with or without a deal.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Hammond said embarking on a renegotiation of the backstop before the end of October was a “figleaf for a policy of leaving on no-deal terms” because the the EU breaks for the summer and then will not get a new commission until November.
The fortunes of the environment secretary remain hard to predict and opinion is split in the party. His detractors believe he is deeply unpopular with the country and ruined his reputation for good when he stood against Boris Johnson at the last leadership race. Most MPs were delighted by his performance in the no-confidence vote where he tore into Jeremy Corbyn. But robust Brexiters dislike the fact he has stayed loyal even in the final days of the crumbling May regime.
While the response of many voters is likely to be "Who?", to some the health secretary is starting to have the makings of a from-the-sidelines contender. The former culture secretary is only 40 but has six years of frontbench experience, and is on to his second cabinet post. The longer the race goes on the more he gains ground for the seemingly basic virtues of being apparently competent and broadly similar to a normal human being.
The nickname "Theresa in trousers" has stuck. Most colleagues speak about his candidacy unenthusiastically and warn about his reputation with the country after the junior doctors’ strike. He could still succeed by bridging the leave-remain divide and attracting colleagues looking for a moderate grown-up, but recently he seemed unable to outline why his brand of Conservatism might appeal to voters.
The home secretary is reported to have told Tory MPs he is the only one who can beat Corbyn in a general election, but has made less of an impact than first predicted. Several MPs believe the case of the Isis bride Shamima Begum was mishandled and find Javid’s speeches and vision less than inspiring.
Still favourite for the top job, Johnson has kept himself out of the messiest Tory warfare in 2019 and has enthusiastic support from younger Brexiter MPs – and the patronage of Jacob Rees-Mogg. His supporters insist no other name on the list can connect with voters in the same way and win a general election. However, his reputation is still severely damaged by his time as foreign secretary and there is a concerted "anyone but Boris" campaign among party colleagues.
Leadsom has revived her reputation somewhat during her tenure as Commons leader, especially her rounds in the ring with the Speaker, John Bercow. However, few believe she would ever be first choice again among Eurosceptics and a number of her former campaign team have said they will discourage her from running. It is yet to be seen how her resignation on the eve of the European elections will play with MPs.
The former cabinet minister has already announced her intention to run. She has the Brexit credentials, having quit as work and pensions secretary in protest at Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, and claims to already have enough support from fellow MPs to make her bid viable.
Previously seen as a definite outsider, her promotion from international development secretary to defence after the sacking of Gavin Williamson has significantly bolstered her position. As both a confirmed Brexiter and a social liberal she could unite different camps, but she remains relatively untested.
The former Brexit secretary has a loyal fanbase and a professional team, including support from Vote Leave’s ex-comms director Paul Stephenson. MPs are forming the view that the next party leader should be a younger face from a new generation of politicians – which gives Raab the edge over Johnson.
While she has not officially ruled herself out, Rudd’s remainer tendencies and slender majority in her Hastings constituency mean the work and pensions secretary is largely being courted for who she might eventually endorse.
As much for effort as inspiration. The chief secretary to the Treasury has been almost everywhere in the last few weeks – including modelling some slightly alarming trousers in the Mail on Sunday – to explain her free market, libertarian philosophy. Everyone knows what she thinks, but this will still perhaps not be enough.
And those not in the running
Among the senior figures not expected to run are Brandon Lewis, the party chairman, Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who acknowledges that he is not popular enough. Gavin Williamson’s recent sacking after the Huawei leak inquiry will also surely rule him out as an option this time around.
“That policy has a major flaw in it, and that is that parliament has voted very clearly to oppose a no-deal Brexit. A prime minister who ignores parliament cannot survive very long,” he said.
Asked repeatedly whether he would vote against a prime minister pursuing a no-deal policy, Hammond refused to rule it out and said there were many of his Conservative colleagues in the same position.
“This is a very difficult situation. It would not just challenge not just me, but many of our colleagues, and I hope we never get to that position,” he said, noting that he had never previously voted against his government in 22 years in parliament.
Refusing to support a Conservative prime minister in a confidence motion would mean that Tory MPs would not be able to keep the whip.
The chancellor noted it would be impossible to govern if a prime minister pushed through a no-deal Brexit without the permission of parliament.
The ERG hardcore
The most resistant segment of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs comprises 28 pro-Brexit backbenchers who have refused to be wooed by Theresa May and opposed her third attempt to pass her Brexit deal. Steve Baker, Andrew Bridgen and Mark Francois are the most vocal members. Jacob Rees-Mogg remains close to the group despite backing May’s deal. Another 100 MPs have been associated with the ERG, including the potential Tory leadership candidates Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom.
Esther McVey, a Brexiter who reluctantly voted for Theresa May’s deal, is the latest Tory to breathe life into the idea of blue-collar conservatism, previously championed by Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee. McVey launched her version on 20 May at an event widely seen as the unofficial start of her leadership bid. She and fellow MPs including Eddie Hughes, Ben Bradley and Scott Mann plan to tour UK pubs to spread their message. McVey’s supporters claim to have up to 40 MPs signed up to the group; other Brexiters claim the figure is less than 20.
One Nation Group
Amber Rudd has spearheaded this pro-remain, anti-no-deal group of MPs, which includes the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, and the former cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green. The group claims to have more than 60 MPs onboard and plans to stand against “narrow nationalism” and division and in favour of internationalism, environmental policies and protecting consumers from corporations and an “over-mighty state”.
Led by the hugely popular Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories in Holyrood, and the Scottish secretary, David Mundell, this group’s overtly remain tendencies put them at odds with the likes of the ERG. Among the 13 Scottish Tory MPs and 31 MSPs there is controversy over Boris Johnson, who is a highly divisive figure in Scotland.
A loose term nowadays, since the former Cameroons are largely nowhere to be seen. Those flying the flag for a more socially progressive, relatable kind of conservatism include the former education secretary Justine Greening and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who even set up his own app in an attempt to keep up with the digital age. Both Greening and Hancock want to move on from Brexit so that other issues can be dealt with, but they are split on what that should look like. Greening has promoted a second referendum, while Hancock is urging all Brexiters to get behind May’s deal.
“It would be very difficult for a prime minister who adopted no-deal as a policy to retain the confidence of the House of Commons,” he said.
In a further critique of some of the leadership candidates, he said: “Some people on the hard Brexit wing of my party have consistently failed to understand how the EU approach this problem… I hear a lot of my colleagues talking about wanting to do a deal, but many of them want to deal a deal entirely on their terms. They are simply proposing to go to Brussels and tell them once again what they don’t like about the withdrawal agreement.”
Hammond’s comments increase the chances that a hard Brexit candidate could decide to go for a general election if they wanted to leave the EU without a deal.
The Conservatives have no majority in parliament, and will have only a very slim working majority if they manage to renegotiate a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party.