So May has gone. Or at least said when she will go. Her statement today that she will stand aside on 7th June, together with the announcement by Brandon Lewis and others about the timetable for the leadership election that will conclude by mid July, gives us the framework. Into that we need to start putting some details.
We do not ultimately need to wait until mid July for the lay of the land to become at least a little clearer. The Conservatives have a two-stage leadership selection system – MPs first have to narrow down the field of candidates to just 2, and those 2 go forward to a poll of the members. That selection among MPs is to take place the week commencing 10 June. The big question is whether Boris Johnson makes it through to the final 2 – he’s disliked among MPs but enjoys much greater support among members. If Johnson is in the final two, we can begin to work out what will then happen.
The question then is what do the leadership contenders even say about Brexit? I think two commitments one could make – that they back May’s Deal or that they back a second referendum can already be ruled out. Either of these routes is wildly unpopular among Tory party members, and hence there will be a commitment to neither of these routes from any candidate.
The referendum issue is potentially interesting when candidates come under pressure. “If it’s a straight choice between No Deal and a referendum, what would you do?” or “Do you rule out a referendum in all circumstances?” might force candidates to make commitments they can then no longer keep. However flexible someone like Boris Johnson might be in is personal beliefs, he is going to struggle to avoid making commitments that then limit his room for manoeuvre later.
Some of this can be assuaged away with some magical thinking in the short term – at least until May’s replacement is in office. Apparently Graham Brady is putting his hat into the ring. He, lest we forget, was the genius behind the idea to replace the Northern Irish Backstop with “alternative arrangements“ without specifying what those were. Also expect the Malthouse Compromise (explanation) to be revised in some form, despite the EU saying the technology to make it work does not exist.
There will also be plenty of words from candidates saying they want to negotiate a better deal with the EU, without any explanation whatsoever as to what that better deal might be, or how it could be achieved. The important check on any such statements would need to be whether the stated aim could be accomplished only with changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, or if changes just to the Political Declaration would suffice. If it is the latter, the EU will be open to it. The former is not somewhere the EU wants to go – it would take some major charm offensive to persuade the EU to open the Withdrawal Agreement.
I expect pretty much all the candidates to aim for the “we’d prefer a Deal, but we’re not scared of No Deal” zone. But the question then in response to that is: do you have a majority for No Deal? Attracting any Labour or other MPs to that position is going to be next to impossible, and if only 3 Tories were to cross the house then the Tories + DUP have no majority any more (current state of the parties here). And there are least 3 Tory MPs – Grieve, Sandbach, Lee and Gymiah spring to mind – that would do pretty much anything to stop No Deal happening. The Tories might conduct their leadership election as if they are unassailable, but the reality in the Commons does not reflect that.
No majority means that a General Election looms. I am pretty sure that with Brexit still not delivered, and with the Tories fearful of Nigel Farage and having taken a battering at the local and European elections that no one really is keen on that, at least initially. If the Tories’ poll numbers get a boost due to May’s departure, some consideration of the tactical benefits of a General Election (not least as a way to free themselves of the DUP and hence the Northern Ireland problem in Brexit) might start to play a greater role in the leadership debate.
Meanwhile the EU must, for the moment, wait, look on and prepare. Seeing the back of the stubborn and inflexible May will lead to some sighs of relief in Brussels and the national capitals around the EU, but a glance at the alternatives (and indeed a glance at the demography of Tory Party members that will ultimately make the decision) will leave everyone scratching their heads once more. The EU must brace itself for excessive and unreasonable demands from May’s successor, but knowing how flimsy the majority is for Tories + DUP in the Commons can push back reasonably hard, knowing there is no majority for No Deal in Westminster.
By mid June the shape of the leadership race will be clear. By mid July May’s successor will be known. And then the headaches will then really begin. It is going to be a bumpy autumn, up until 31st October. And even beyond.