THE runners for the next leader of the Tory Party are starting to declare themselves and the MPs are plotting and scheming to work out which two to send to their membership for the final choice. They will obviously be seeking someone who can rescue them from the electoral oblivion that they rightly face as a result of the Brexit fiasco.
Whoever becomes leader, the salient facts remain that the EU is refusing to negotiate an alternative deal, the current deal has failed to pass three times and the auguries are not good for a fourth attempt. The parliamentary arithmetic has not changed. Which means that that the options facing the new PM will be (1) exit with no deal, which is what will happen if no alternative is found (2) persuade Parliament that to avoid no deal they need to support the May deal or (3) call a general election to change the arithmetic.
Option (1) has been complicated by Parliament’s vote against that, although the EU is not bound by it and Parliament might just as well have voted against the tide coming in. The EU has also stated that a transition period is contingent on Mrs May’s deal being adopted. If legislation is required to prepare for an exit on no deal it might not be passed as those MPs who oppose Brexit attempt to render it impossible in practical terms as well as politically with the current composition of the House of Commons.
Which might make Option (2), going with May’s deal, an easier sell. But it remains an awful deal.
So any new PM has to be able to persuade the entire House of Commons to start acting in accordance with the referendum outcome and persuade the EU that he or she has the authority to be able to leave without a deal, which is the only likely way to get them to negotiate pragmatically and realistically. All of which will lead to further delay (Brexit is very much not in the EU interest). Is there any current Tory MP capable of establishing such authority? I look at the candidates and can’t see one – there is no Lloyd George, Churchill or even a Cameron (he was capable of leading a very successful coalition).
So absent a saviour, Tory MPs will be seeking someone who can save them from electoral annihilation. Good luck with that as you then have to factor in the Brexit Party.
It seems likely that the Brexit Party will romp home in first place in the European elections – no great surprise to anyone (except perhaps UKIP). But how to extrapolate from that to a general election is the challenge. Clearly the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party has a problem in as much as the Brexit Party has parked its tanks on their lawn. Which might lead some Conservative MPs to decide that the Tory Party needs to become a remain party. But Vince Cable’s Lib Dems and the Greens are already there. Which explains the Tories’ current line that voting for anyone other than them will result in Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. I’m not so sure.
The last time we had a socialist Labour government was in the 1970s (Blair’s ‘New Labour’ adopted the undefined ‘third way’ which stuck to Tory spending plans for its early years). Back then we had nationalised industries with huge workforces, powerful trade unions and a weak economy, plus widespread financial illiteracy. Now the economy is strong, unions are powerful only in the public sector, there are no nationalised industries and, crucially, 60 per cent of employment is in small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Indeed 48 per cent of all employment is in firms with fewer than 50 employees, and in a firm that small almost everyone understands the concept of wealth creation. I think it unlikely that many will vote for a 1970s throwback, particularly one with such affinity for terrorists and disdain for British culture, no matter how often he turns up at Glastonbury or whatever the Momentum trolls push.
The Labour party too has the Brexit party apparently doing well in its heartlands and is set for an electoral kicking. On 6 June there will be a by-election in Peterborough (to replace disgraced former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya) where the leave vote was 61 per cent. Having been campaigning there in support of the Brexit Party I have a feeling it is not going to be a pleasant experience for the established parties.
The combination of these factors is going to change the dynamics of the next PM’s decision whether to call an early general election. The downside of calling one is that the outcome will be exceptionally uncertain, as the Brexit Party has changed the political landscape to the point that forecasting errors are likely to be massive. The possible upside to the new PM of an early election is that the Brexit Party has yet to publish a full manifesto and its infrastructure is a work in progress. But that is changing and the moment may well have passed by the time the new PM is in post.
There is a further challenge: the Brexit Party is not just about Brexit. It is about changing politics for the good. Again, from my limited sampling in Peterborough the public’s disdain for our current political establishment (including the BBC) is at an all-time high. The Brexit fiasco means that the public wants change. Few of the inhabitants of the House of Commons can offer that and I suspect after tonight, when the first EU election results will be declared, and 6 June none of them will want to go anywhere near a ballot box.
Which rather makes the Brexit Party’s point: if politicians of all hues are scared of the electorate, Parliamentary democracy is in trouble.