Tory members must choose next leader wisely
Back in April, Donald Tusk passionately pleaded with the UK, saying “please don’t waste this time.” The European Council president urged Britain to use the six-month extension to Brexit talks wisely. Now, more than a third of the way through this timeframe, Tusk may not be impressed. Certainly, nobody could accuse the British political classes of acting in haste.
By the end of June, in theory, the micro-electorate of 160,000 Conservative Party members will be presented with a choice of two candidates, one of whom they will vote to be their leader and probable next UK prime minister. The rest of the country’s 45 million voters will have no say at all. This voting process should be completed by the end of July, just before the summer holidays. August is a dead zone politically, so this takes us into early September. Two months will be left to sort out a solution and get it ratified by all parties.
The Conservative Party leadership tussle started months ago, even if the official starting gun was only fired on June 10. Thus far, it is hard to see which of the candidates will break the Brexit logjam.
The same number of MPs are still in favor of leaving with or without a deal, the same number are against no deal, and the same number are prepared for a negotiated exit. The parliamentary numbers will not change; the different political formations are securely siloed. No matter who becomes prime minister, they cannot be assured of a majority for a deal, for no deal, a referendum or to remain in the EU. Indeed, if a hard-line Brexiteer triumphs, he may lose a number of MPs from the Conservative ranks and not even command a majority in the House of Commons. A reported 30 members of the House of Lords have also threatened to abandon the Tories if a no-deal Brexit is proposed.
Across the Channel, the EU insists that negotiations on the existing withdrawal agreement are not an option. Will Brussels budge? Well maybe, but not just because Britain has a new leader who simply objects louder and more boisterously. European politicians calculate, not unreasonably, that they have the stronger hand.
Given the widespread Tory belief that either the Conservatives ensure the UK leaves the EU or they leave government, one option of the more hard-line candidates is to force Parliament into a lockdown, or to prorogue it. The leading candidate, Boris Johnson, will not rule this out. This would mean the Queen having to agree to close Parliament against its will so that it could not block a no-deal exit. This nuclear option would be a massive threat to British democracy, with the executive headed by a man (all female candidates are already out) with no electoral mandate from the country bypassing the elected legislature. If Johnson or Dominic Raab, who also endorses prorogation, attempts this, Rory Stewart, a more centrist candidate, would back holding Parliament elsewhere. “We will hold our own session of Parliament across the road in Methodist Central Hall and we will bring him down,” he said.
A feature of the campaign so far is the dearth of original thinking, not least as far as Brexit is concerned
If the numbers are not changing, then how about the arguments? A feature of the campaign so far is the dearth of original thinking, not least as far as Brexit is concerned. The candidates are recycling the old arguments and conjuring herds of unicorns in a tiring “Groundhog Day” nightmare. If there are fresh ideas, they are well camouflaged.
In terms of personalities, Johnson should be dominating given his brand and much-touted political heft, yet he is absent. This is his submarine strategy, of allowing himself as little exposure as possible, even eschewing the chance to appear on Sunday’s first televised debate and dodging forensic interviews with informed journalists. This is bizarre, given that Johnson’s perceived strength is his charisma and ability to reach out to those who might not always vote for the Tories. The runaway favorite is running away.
Johnson’s minders fear exposing their candidate to the rigors of debate and scrutiny, aware that the biggest threat to Johnson is Johnson himself. He should win, with the most MPs backing him and a massive slug of the membership still in thrall to him. It is too simplistic to define him as a British version of Donald Trump or a populist phony, but he has some worrying traits — the lack of attention to detail, his cavalier attitude to truth and accuracy, and a litany of quotes that suggest racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny. His former editor, Max Hastings, described him as “a man of remarkable gifts flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple.”
Johnson’s camp is even pushing for a coronation, whereby the MPs simply agree to give him the throne without going to the membership, as happened with Theresa May in 2016. However, many point out that, had May been tested, her awkward campaigning skills and lack of warmth would have been highlighted.
The Conservative Party membership has not had a chance to vote for its leader for 14 years. It is a strange electorate: Predominantly male, white, and a third of them being pensioners. The members are even more Euroskeptic than Conservative voters. Two-thirds would support leaving the EU with no deal, which the majority of the rest of the country see as political and economic suicide. It is a party risking freefall, with disastrous local and European election results. Can it get worse than winning just 9 percent of the vote in the EU elections? This selectorate has to get it right for both the party and the country.
Tusk cannot be impressed and nor will other EU leaders. September will arrive and it will be like February all over again, when Britain also had two months left on the clock. The UK could crash out or be pleading once again for yet another extension. Given such scenarios, who would want to press the fast forward button?
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech