Friday, July 12, 2019

Theresa May's poison chalice - for whoever succeeds her

 I wrote a piece on the Tory leadership contest shortly after it started, but did not publish at the time. Thought it might be fun to see how predictions actually did play out since....

Theresa May stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party last Friday after attending D-Day commemorations and receiving US President Donald Trump for a state visit. May will remain as Prime Minister until a new leader of the Conservatives is named.
The process is usually straightforward. Any Conservative MP needs only a couple supporters to get his or her candidacy considered. Tory MPs then vote for their preferred candidate with the name receiving the least votes being eliminated in each round until there are two names left. The final names are then presented to Conservative Party members for a vote. The winner becomes leader of the party – and the next British Prime Minister.
Last time, the process was only partly used. This is because a number of candidates either decided against standing for leader, like Boris Johnson, or dropped out during the contest, like Andrea Leadsom. Now the process has been changed while candidates have been making their pitches to supporters, such as raising the number of required supporters. This was justified to help shrink the field but the only effect has been to remove more pro-Remain and soft Brexit voices from consideration that will make some think the move was partisan-driven.
There are a large number of MPs in the running. The frontrunner is Boris Johnson – and never before in modern times has the Tory frontrunner won the contest. Johnson may win regardless of history being against him. It’s important to understand why. After speaking to a number of Tory activists and MPs, it has been surprising to see that their support is not for Boris but a wager that he’ll win and if so their support might win them a place in his team. This is not about backing the best candidate or vision, but a collective act of self-promotion – and for some self-preservation. Hardly an inspiring position to be in.
His main rivals appear to be Jeremy Hunt, who replaced Boris as Foreign Secretary, and Dominic Raab, who was temporarily Brexit Secretary. Hunt is the Tory mainstream candidate who has continuously served in Cabinet since David Cameron was Prime Minister. He is also the softest on Brexit. Raab, who achieved virtually nothing in his brief time in Cabinet, has courted controversy by declaring he’d effectively suspend Parliament from meeting until after 31 October to ensure Brexit happened deal or no deal.

Both are unlikely to succeed. Hunt was an unpopular Health Secretary and has flip flopped over what kind of Brexit, if any, he would support. He has been in favour of May’s current deal rejected by Parliament several times. Raab has also not been consistent on Brexit and his aim to stop Parliament from meeting – while MPs continue to receive full pay – for months so that Brexit can happen one way or another appears an overly reckless and partisan approach to the general public.

The remaining candidates have struggled to get attention or command support from their fellow MPs. Andrea Leadsom has been consistent on Brexit and was the last rival to May in the previous contest, but she has failed to garner more than a handful of supporters. Esther McVey’s push for a No Deal Brexit has been seen as extreme and economically damaging.

Most curious of them all is Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who holds May’s previous Cabinet position. He has publicly called for big increases in police and a softer approach to immigration, including students, that directly contradict the Prime Minister and, until now, Javid’s own repeated claims to the contrary.

Overall, it seems they are all – from Johnson to Javid – united in the view that there must be Brexit. But they no longer argue Brexit is best for the country, but rather necessary for the continuing survival of their political party. Their collective problem is that the public did not vote for Brexit by any means or at any costs. The public were promised that Britain would be better off and the benefits would extend to every region of the UK. Getting to Brexit only addresses the most pressing crisis facing the Tories, but does not make their problems go away.

However, the bigger political question might be not who might become Prime Minister, but what difference will this make to Brexit? All candidates have rejected calling a general election yet each thinks only he or she can make a difference in making Brexit a reality. But without a new election, the Tories are still without a majority in Parliament and so none of the tax cuts, Brexit plans, etc they cannot pass now will succeed in future. Only the Prime Minister is changing and not who the MPs are. A general election creating a new Parliament and potentially different numbers of MPs across the major parties seem the only way to break the current deadlock without a second referendum.

A further political question is whether whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will complete his or her first day in office. This is because it is almost certain a vote of no confidence will be held in the leader that could force a general election. At the moment, only the Tories look likely to get stung if an election took place. Since they do not control a majority in the House of Commons, this makes it all the more certain such a vote could succeed – and the balance of power shift fast under the gaze of whoever succeeds May in the next days.

Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School @thom_brooks

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