I suppose I really ought to say something about this leadership election. I am reluctant to do so because I think it likely that I will annoy as many of my readers as I please. Those of them, for instance, who are on the Left in politics, who read the Guardian and the Daily Mail (in its new manifestation) and who think Jeremy Corbyn is rather a good egg, will be furious with me if I don’t come down in favour of Rory Stewart. My remainer Conservative friends will be incandescent with rage if I don’t go for Jeremy Hunt or Matt Hancock. Those of my friends who spend half their lives stoned will be completely bemused if my vote doesn’t go to my actual friend, Michael Gove. Oh well, I will just have to annoy you all and hope, in time, that you will forgive me.
First, some general points. This is not a conventional leadership election. It is unique, I think, in turning entirely on one issue. The last leadership election, the one which saw Mrs May crowned, was not, in the same way, a one issue election. Of course, Brexit was important. But the election took place at a time when no one in the Conservative Parliamentary party would have dreamed of suggesting that the referendum result should not be honoured. Everyone, except George Osborne, was a leaver, even if he or she had campaigned to remain. Had the vote gone to the country, the grass roots would have paid almost as much attention to other issues as to Brexit. After all, the few committed Tory remainer MPs had not yet made themselves the enemies of most Conservative voters (outside London) in the way they now have. No one had heard of Anna Soubry or Heidi Allen. Dominic Grieve was a reasonably competent pair of hands whose love of Brussels bureaucrats was quite unknown to all except a few and who had served with distinction as shadow Home Secretary and then Attorney General. Oliver Letwin seemed very convincing as a newly converted leaver. The extraordinary hatred which Conservative remainers now have for Conservative leavers was, then, a thing of the future (I entirely accept that a few of the leavers have also turned pretty nasty to the remainers but, as polls have shown, most of the hatred is in the hearts of remainers). But, now, only one issue matters and it would be fanciful to say the views of the contenders on anything other than that issue will play any part in the result of the election.
So, Brexit will decide the election. Actually, not just Brexit. The MPs and the grass roots will, mostly, also be very concerned about which of the candidates might stand a chance of saving their party from the oblivion to which Mrs May seems to have consigned it. But they know, or the ones who are capable of logical thought know, that it is only if the new leader can “deliver” Brexit in some acceptable form that the party may be saved.
Mrs May and her civil service pals negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Commission. The House of Commons hates the agreement. It will never vote for it unless it is amended. In particular, the notorious “backstop” must not be allowed to go on for ever. The Commission, endlessly, has said that it will not consider amending the agreement. Those are the facts. So why are so many of the leadership contenders saying they will succeed in getting the Commission to agree satisfactory amendments? All right, nothing is impossible in politics. But this looks as close to impossible as you can get. Are you really taken in by Mr Hunt saying he is a brilliant negotiator because he used to be an entrepreneur and therefore will succeed where Mrs May failed even though, like her, he has made it plain he won’t seriously threaten no deal? When Mrs Leadsom proudly announces she will succeed in leaving with a deal on 31st October, do you rub your hands with glee and say “oh, goody”? Does Mr Gove’s slightly saner assertion that, because he can no longer bear the thought of no deal, he will extend Article 50 beyond October and then achieve a deal, satisfy you that he will “deliver”?
Some of the candidates, with varying degrees of conviction, have said that, if the Commission won’t play ball, they will arrange for us to leave on 31st October under WTO terms. Others just keep repeating that there will be no need for that because their brilliant negotiating skills will produce a wonderful deal. They, of course, stand no chance of being elected. Neither the MPs nor the grass roots are that stupid. But what about those who say, and mean, that they really will contemplate leaving with no deal even though a majority of the House of Commons and all the broadcast media and the Daily Mail are convinced that would be evil?
This is where it gets tricky. There is no doubt that, as the law now stands, just letting time pass until 31st October will result in our leaving then on WTO terms. But Labour, John Bercow and the handful of Tory MPs who will stop at nothing to keep us in the EU had a cunning plan. They decided, entirely confident they would succeed, to propose a motion today which, if passed, would have allowed them to bring in a Bill forbidding the government to allow us to leave the EU on WTO terms. Quite what the Bill would have stated is not known. Most assume it would have required the next Prime Minister to ask for another extension of Article 50 and would have directed the Queen that she was not permitted to prorogue Parliament. Proroguing Parliament would never have been a runner. It was a nice idea, and Labour has done it in the past, but it would now be politically unwise. Requiring another extension request might or might not have worked. If M Macron is to be believed he will reject any such request. But it would not have killed Brexit with no deal, it would just have delayed it. The only way Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin (I single them out because they happen to be friends of mine) could succeed would be by including a provision that the government should revoke Article 50. That would never get through the House. As it happens, today’s motion was defeated. Yes, the Conservative rebels, who now know they have no future in the party, tried to get Labour’s motion through. But several Labour MPs, who must know their seats are at risk if Ms Thornberry continues to get her way in turning Labour against its working class roots, opposed the motion. No deal now remains, as they say, on the table.
But that, of course, is not the end of it. There can be no doubt that there is strong feeling in the House of Commons against departure on WTO terms. Many of our MPs, who are not all desperately bright, have been taken in by Project Hysteria. Quite a few of them, of course, are too young to have any recollection of life before we were ruled by Brussels. It is not surprising that they assume any change would be disastrous. Anyway, there is a risk that those MPs and Mr Bercow will come up with some other way of preventing the government from allowing us to leave the EU on WTO terms. What happens then?
This is the big question. Several of the leadership contenders, I would guess, would just cave in and do a May: ask for another extension and then dither for a few years. Any who would take the enormous risk of calling an election should obviously be chosen by anyone who wants the oldest democratic political party in the world to survive.
If there has to be an election (and I am not sure of that since quite a few Labour MPs will want to hold on to their seats), it is important that the leader of the Conservative Party should stand some chance of winning it. We get some help from yesterday’s poll. Only one candidate could produce a good working majority. If Boris Johnson were leader of the Conservative Party that party would win an election with a majority of 140.
Well, there we are. Not all that long ago I would have told you to back Michael Gove. He is enormously bright and a brilliant speaker. I don’t mind about his drug taking, though I am surprised he was so old before he stopped. But his conversion to Brexit in name only has turned me against him. Sorry, Michael.
I reckon there is only one other serious contender. Jeremy Hunt will be the heart throb of the Tory MPs who secretly long for us to remain in the EU. But the grass roots, who are petrified of being landed with another May, will not stand for him.
No, despite his several faults, Boris has to be our next Prime Minister.