Get ready for a new prime minister – but it may be too late for them to save Brexit

John Rentoul
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Get ready for a new prime minister – but it may be too late for them to save Brexit

Theresa May’s time as prime minister is over. She could yet take the country out of the EU, but would have to give up her job to do so. She met Boris Johnson twice this week, and told him she had no intention of standing aside.

The next time they speak, though, she might offer to announce her departure in return for his vote and the votes of his supporters for her Brexit deal. I don’t know how many supporters Johnson has, but I doubt if it would be enough.

And if she fails to get her deal through the House of Commons in time to avoid the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections in May, she will probably resign anyway.

I suspect the critical decision will not come next week. In the Brexit story, there is always another week. Next week there will be a fuss about indicative votes, as MPs argue about how best to organise an X Factor contest to eliminate the Brexit options one by one until they arrive at the one magic solution capable of uniting the Commons.

If they did so, the answer would probably be the Labour policy of a permanent customs union, which could easily be added to the political declaration, the non-binding part of the Brexit deal.

But would Jeremy Corbyn support it if a Conservative prime minister proposed it? Most Tory MPs would vote against it, so it would need a pretty full turnout of Labour MPs to get it through.

That would be a different way for May to end her time as Tory leader, but as she is at the end anyway, she might think that she had at least delivered Brexit.

If she doesn’t get a deal through next week, she will be back in Brussels the following week asking for another delay. This time it would have to be a long extension, possibly to the end of the year.

If the EU agrees, MPs would be asked to vote to change the exit date in the Withdrawal Act. They would then be voting explicitly to hold European Parliament elections in May – by changing the exit date, the law providing for those elections would stay unrepealed.

As that vote approaches, MPs might finally be asked to vote for the deal – any deal – to avoid that outcome. Finally up against a hard deadline, they might vote for it at last. Or they might not, in which case we will be staying in the EU for the foreseeable future, and possibly for ever. We will be like someone trying to leave the house but not being able to find our keys, our phone, our coat or our bag and deciding not to go out after all.

Whether we stay or go, however, Theresa May’s time is up. She has to go, either as the price of leaving or as the penalty for staying. She said this week: “As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June.” If the EU agrees a long extension and she doesn’t keep her word, I think her party will keep it for her.

Which means we will need a new prime minister within weeks, and yet the field of candidates is wide open. So wide open that some bookmakers have Jeremy Corbyn as the favourite to be next prime minister, which doesn’t reflect the likelihood of an early general election but simply that there are so many Tory candidates to succeed May that each of them individually is a long shot.

Boris Johnson currently has the best chance, for what it is worth. I think his main rivals are Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab, in rough order of Euroscepticism. Any two of those could emerge from the MPs’ stage of the contest, with the assumption being that party members would choose the more Eurosceptic of the two.

All leadership campaigns unfold in unexpected ways, though, and my view is that Gove is less likely to self destruct, and more likely to demonstrate the intellectual ability and creativity needed. He is not popular with the general public, but his winding-up speech in the confidence debate in January impressed MPs and party members.

The Tory party is so consumed by the Brexit crisis that it is not looking for an election winner so much as someone who can hold the party together and deliver a “real” Brexit. For many Tories that means a no-deal Brexit, which is something that the House of Commons has rejected twice – last week by 412 votes to 202.

The problem for any Tory leader is that the 202 included 60 per cent of Tory MPs – supported by a larger proportion of party members.

Within weeks, the Tory party could choose one of the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign – Boris Johnson or Michael Gove – to be prime minister. But whoever becomes prime minister would be trying to secure a form of Brexit that is even less likely to get through parliament than May’s deal.

Which is why I think that, if we do not leave the EU in the next few weeks, we never will.