Tory leadership rivals clash as no-deal Brexit looms
As so often in politics, it was not reason but brazenness and promises that won out. Initially there were 10 contenders to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister of the UK. As of Thursday evening, there were just two: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. They will now face off in a series of party hustings throughout the country to prepare the 160,000-strong membership for selecting their new leader in a secret ballot. We will know who the next prime minister is in the week of July 22 — nicely in time for the summer recess of Parliament.
Johnson was always the front-runner. Firstly, he is popular with the Tory party membership because he stands for Brexit. Secondly, he is a brand, commonly known just as “Boris” throughout the land. His brashness plays well with the membership and they think that he is the only one who could save the party at a general election. He is of the opinion that not delivering Brexit would be the end of his party. His priorities were clear from the beginning: Himself and the Conservative Party. Johnson is a larger-than-life figure and is known to make the odd gaffe. Therefore, his handlers managed him very carefully. In order not to mess up, he gave no interviews save for announcing his candidacy on June 12. He also only took part in one of the two televised debates.
By the time the contenders had been whittled down to six, they fell over themselves advocating their stance on Brexit and promising tax cuts. Beyond that, they did not come up with detailed programs — except for Michael Gove and Rory Stewart that is.
What have we learned from the last two weeks? Stewart was the only candidate who was honest in terms of what it will take to secure Brexit, because Brussels is not willing to renegotiate the UK’s withdrawal agreement. He tried to push May’s Brexit deal across the line, but that was always going to be doomed. He was also honest inasmuch as there is no room for tax breaks and that the country would be better off investing all available money wisely in light of Brexit. That was never going to fly. Most candidates played to the gallery: The Tory members have an average age of 57 and are mostly male, white and affluent. They will be lapping up promises of tax cuts for the well-off.
The Brexit stance was another indicator. The Tory party membership is predominantly pro-Brexit. So much so that, in a recent YouGov poll, two-thirds of those questioned were willing to risk breaking up the union in order to achieve Brexit. In other words, they put a higher value on leaving the EU than keeping Scotland as part of the UK. It is therefore not surprising that all the remaining candidates have promised to deliver Brexit.
Bloomberg’s Tom Keene marveled on television at how quick and clear-cut the selection process is compared to the US. He may have had a point when it comes to selecting presidential candidates within a party, which in the US is a long, drawn-out process spanning many primaries. However, in the end, the American people get to vote for a presidential candidate. The UK is a parliamentary democracy and, in this case, the Conservative Party will select the new prime minister because it is already in government.
What may come back to haunt the Conservative Party is the fact that this leadership process is based on such a narrow caucus.
What may come back to haunt the Conservative Party in the next election is the fact that this leadership process is based on such a narrow caucus, which is hardly representative of the country.
Where does this leadership contest leave the country? Nothing will have changed for the incoming prime minister. The Conservatives still form only a minority government and the numbers in the House of Commons have not changed. Neither has the stance of the Tory party’s uber-Brexiteers in the influential European Research Group, who still want to see Brexit at any cost. The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the government, remains steadfast in its opposition to the Irish backstop. This was designed to keep goods flowing between Northern Ireland and the Republic in case the UK and EU cannot reach a trade deal. Labour has so far failed to coax leader Jeremy Corbyn into backing a second referendum, which means that the party still has no clear policy on Brexit at a time when clarity is needed. There is still a majority against a no-deal Brexit in the House of Commons. In other words, the parliamentary impasse remains and the next prime minister may well have to call a second referendum or a new election.
As for renegotiating the deal with the EU, that looks unlikely, as Brussels’ Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk have reiterated time and again. We are also running out of time: Oct. 31 is fast approaching and, whoever the new prime minister is, Parliament will go on summer recess shortly after he has formed a government. On top of that, there will be a new leadership team in the EU from November.
In the meantime, the country is woefully unprepared for a no-deal Brexit, which looks increasingly likely. The pharmaceutical industry and the National Health Service do not have sufficient stockpiles of medicine. The required new immigration and customs systems are not in place at the country’s ports or airports. The City of London needs clarity in terms how to clear euro-denominated transactions, etc. The pound weakened after the last leadership debate because the prospect of a no-deal Brexit seemed closer. Many investors have scrapped or postponed plans to put money into Britain. Transition measures under article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade allow countries to proceed as before while negotiating an agreement, but they will fall by the wayside if the UK exits without a deal.
The country seems to be hurtling toward a no-deal Brexit at the speed of a bullet train. In the end, it will not be the political elites in Westminster who will have to pay the price, but ordinary Britons up and down the country.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources