To listen to some of the candidates standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party and to become the next prime minister, you would think they were about to inherit a crushing parliamentary majority and a united cabinet. From their breezy optimism about renegotiating the EU withdrawal agreement, you would imagine the European Union is about to cave in to their demands. You are also asked to believe that a no-deal Brexit is nothing to be especially fearful about, and that substantial tax cuts can easily be afforded. It is a world where disastrous local and European election results can be shrugged off.
Either they are deluded or they are trying cynically to appeal to the 124,000 Eurosceptic Tory members who will end up choosing Britain’s next prime minister. It is a depressing scene.
Like Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey are the latest to peddle such strange ideas, against the weight of all recent evidence and experience. They believe the EU can be persuaded to accept the Brady amendment and the Irish backstop if only we threaten no deal (and mean it) and walk away from the talks. It is rather like the comedy sketch of the British tourist of yesteryear turning up in some continental bar and taking the view that eventually the locals will understand you if only you shout loud enough.
With Michael Gove joining the crowded and growing field, the candidates fall into two main groups. One bunch – Johnson, Raab, McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Jeremy Hunt – is engaged in a Eurosceptic beauty contest. A bidding war, an arms race, to see who can lay down the hardest line on Brexit. No deal for them is no problem, not least because they think it will give them the keys to Downing Street. Some, such as Mr Raab, may extend their Eurosceptic offer to the Tory grassroots so far as to consider working with Nigel Farage in some way. The appeal is focussed on the 124,000 members of the Conservative Party – far from representative of the 47 million British people on the electoral register. In due course Sajid Javid, Penny Mordaunt, Graham Brady, Priti Patel, Steve Baker and others will join in this competition to see who can take the “toughest” line on Brexit, with varying degrees of credibility.
Against them are a group who are, by such devalued standards, statesmanlike. Mr Gove, Mike Hancock and Rory Stewart are sensible and brave enough not to join in the no-deal bidding war. But their offer is equally flawed as, essentially, continuity candidates, advocating compromises and following much the same strategy Ms May has over the past two years. They might contend they are better communicators than her, or for Mr Gove that they are an “original Leaver” and smarter and more nimble-footed, and thus able to bridge the gap between the Commons and the EU. Some hope.
The reality, of course, is that the EU is agnostic about who the British premier is, and they will not renegotiate a deal. They know in any case, as does everyone else, including the leadership contenders, that the no-deal threat is a bluff. There is not and probably never will be a majority in the House of Commons for no deal. It is sometimes argued by the likes of members of the Institute for Government that parliament cannot prevent a no-deal Brexit if a prime minister is determined enough. Yet it can, because it has already, and faced with a choice between no deal and no Brexit it will choose no Brexit, either by a simple revocation of Article 50 or by forcing a people’s vote second referendum, or both. There are thankfully enough Tory MPs to do that – including such figures as Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond. No deal has no majority in parliament. Only Rory Stewart has even vaguely acknowledged that reality, which is probably enough to doom his chances of winning the contest. Eventually, though, it will prevail, and the British people will have to assert their democratic rights.
Whoever wins this leadership election, then, will be faced with a minority government, a parliament firmly against no deal, a European Commission no more interested in the Brady amendment and, indeed, no one to negotiate with for months until the new EU Commission is formed. There will not be time for a Brexiteers renegotiation by 31 October, without a further extension to Article 50, which may be conditional. The mess will be as bad as ever.
Whoever wins the tawdry crown, then, will see their premiership also end in tears. They will fail just as surely as Cameron and May did, and for the same fundamental reasons. The 47 million UK voters are the right people to sort this out, not 124,000 Tory members.