Peter Divey assesses the likely contenders for the Tory leadership.
PM May’s tumultuous reign will soon end. She has never recovered from her snap General Election decision. That was the extra burden that weighed down on everything. I do not blame her for making that call, the polls were hugely tempting and most politicians would have succumbed. The campaign was a disaster, that is where most of the fault lies. The spotlight on May herself was too revealing, a broader beam was needed. Good people lost seats, and with them went a comfortable working majority. Her brief was always out of the ordinary from the moment Cameron ran from the consequences he had unleashed, which is why even now I have some ambivalence towards her. Wartime aside I doubt any PM has worked harder. A for effort, but all to no avail. Much fuss arose from her recent speech, borne out of frustration she later said. The faux outrage as MPs circled and jabbed was typical political opportunity well seized. I agreed with the PM’s sentiments. Parliament is indeed refusing to honour the Brexit decision. Her terrible Withdrawal Agreement, which the honest are now admitting is a Treaty, has enabled Brexit to be badly wounded all too easily. It is justification for every side of opinion to demur.
It is sometimes hard to credit that Leave were victorious. Parliament refuse to accept that, and are fighting tooth and nail to modify the result, supported by big business and media. The judgement is clear. Any risk to democracy and political legitimacy is secondary to membership of the beloved EU, which is more important than any totality of a British Citizens vote. Hang any consequences. Some have talked of the fundamental democratic deficiency that defines aspects of the EU, well, our MPs are working hard to expand upon that example. Brexit is not yet dead, but serious consideration is being given to switching off life support.
Next PM, possibly on an interim basis, to see the Brexit process completed, interested? Not the most appealing job offer. So who will step forward? The successful candidate can expect to have their career stymied. The risks massively outweigh any upside. The queue will be shorter than usual. Much better to stay in the cheap seats and hector from there. Lets have a quick look at possible candidates.
Boris Johnson has exhausted his extensive political capital, frittered away with too many witticisms that over time have eroded his long term standing and enhanced his controversial and seeming filigree nature. He chose the winning side of the Brexit divide, indeed was one of the main drivers of that success and like many now, voter and politician, he will wonder how that achievement led to being coralled in a cul-de-sac. He may be grateful for the knife in the back from Gove having witnessed the tribulations of the PM. Nope, just too divisive.
Micheal Gove is a clever operator. More than Johnson he knows when to strike, when to lie quiet in the grass. He was the first to suggest tolerating the PM’s compromise deal, seeing the risk of losing it all. A path that many have since taken. Trust? Loyalty? Gove is a politician after all…a better fit than Johnson certainly. But I think not, the timing is all wrong.
Jeremy Hunt may be sufficiently ambitious to take the risk. Possible.
Dominic Raab. Not for me. Like Gove he will bide his time.
Sajid Javid is in situ upon the hot seat of Home Secretary which is never comfortable in the long term. Stay too long and you usually get burned, so he may be inclined to step off. Possible.
Phillip Hammond is one of the arch Brexit destroyers. Would he fancy stepping up to deliver the coup de grace? An EU man, Davos mover and shaker, fog horn for big business and lobbyists. Some would like the idea. He has been in Cabinet but only ever worked to cajole or undermine the PM. I hope not. Hammond as PM would be Remainer heaven.
Amber Rudd has a veneer of a majority and is likely to be swept away at the next general election. Only a possibility as interim sacrificial lamb…unless a move to a more secure constituency is engineered.
Geoffrey Cox will decline. He knows a poisoned pill when he sees it.
Priti Patel. Not enough upside, she will hold. And then there were two…
David Lidington is a good fit. Yep, I can see that. Sufficiently bland and thus less divisive. Loyal. A Party man. Capable enough.
Rory Stewart. My pick. Not a heavyweight, but talented. The man you put up to meet the press to defend the impossible. The outsider come good. He carries no baggage which is important just now.
Now we can engage in fantasy, having dispensed with the reality. I would have Steve Baker as PM. John Redwood as Chancellor. Jacob Rees-Mogg would love the job of Speaker, he would need to bring dignity and gravitas back to the role after the farce of Bercow’s residency. Michael Gove would do well at the Foreign Office even if the PM would need to have a tight hold on the reins. Unlike Boris Johnson you have no doubt that he would be atop his brief.
There is no great jockeying of riders and runners. It is a sign of the times. An interim PM who steers Brexit to a conclusion, and then takes the blame, maybe from all sides, is just the thing. But to achieve that you need control. This Government is at the mercy of events. The EU must be tempted to install a bureaucrat in lieu of a British PM, as they have done elsewhere. Are we about to herald the return of Tony Blair? The UK is not yet at such a low ebb you may think. For now the usual de facto EU interlopers will have to suffice. The legally binding March 29th exit date was swatted aside like a fly, even though 498 MPs voted for it. The impossible has become not only improbable, but the new normal. Will the PM bring her Treaty forward for a 4th vote? She will do as the EU commands. It is ironic that Brexit has made the UK ever more subservient to the EU. A political choice.
Theresa May will leave a parting gift. She will enable a General Election when she walks the plank. A parting shot to her old friends. We have seen nothing yet. The phoney war is drawing to a close as the fall-out from unintended consequences collides with political cynicism and deceit. The sunlit uplands of Brexit were never to be in reach, but ensuring that has left only a political wasteland. All around is mud and poppies. The MPs are not in a bubble, but safely ensconced in the trenches. They are too scared to go over the top, but, as ever, they will send you in their stead. And they will blame you when you fail. Do vote again…until you get it right. This process has years to play out yet. The political landscape will be forever changed. Brexit is dead. Long live Brexit.