Second (and last?) chance for Britain’s Conservative party

Conservative party MPs are starting the process to replace Theresa May as Britain’s Prime Minister. Candidates are proffering policy positions and personal cameos as if they mattered (they don’t for now – maybe later), with little recognition of the changed rules of the game, and less of the abyss that looms before them.  It’s a little like Kerensky’s ministers arguing over personal expenses, while the Bolsheviks stream through the gates of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

Let’s go back to round one (familiar to regular Point of Order readers). May’s strategic gamble was that she could sell a half Brexit. Leave the EU in name, get back national control over immigration, but for all practical purposes stay firmly in the legal and economic structure of the single market and customs union (hopefully for a while, maybe forever, let’s see). It was plausible, but it failed because the polity was just too polarised. Most Brexiteers swallowed their pride and accepted the May deal, but enough said – its not enough. And when Mrs May appealed to the other side, they rejected her olive branch with disdain and perhaps a calculation that they could get more later. The European Union gave her no room for manoeuvre as things got sticky.

This drawn-out failure has galvanised the Conservative party’s members and voters. Party meetings and election results all point to a majority wanting Brexit, wanting it now and willing to abandon their party if they don’t get it. For the time being, they seem beyond the influence, let alone control, of the current leadership.

Conservative MPs are finding this hard to cope with. They are forcing themselves to the conclusion that the next Prime Minister has to credibly promise that Britain will leave the EU on (or about) 31 October without an agreement if he or she cannot negotiate a better one than the May deal. But quite a few of them see both outcomes as impossible.

Boris Johnson is still front runner for the job. Perhaps because he has been underestimated so often in the past, the media can’t always see what a deft campaign he is running. He has insisted that the UK must leave the EU on 31 October, must prepare vigorously for a no-deal exit, but that he is not aiming for it. When asked if the Government might prorogue Parliament if it gets difficult he carefully quipped “I am strongly not attracted to it”.  In a debate reduced to Stalinist cliche, his ability to cut to the issue through elliptical, sometimes flippant, humour may be a strength. (When poor Mrs May repeated the focus group line “People are sick and tired of Brexit” she found out that they were obsessed and this was the British way of saying they were sick and tired of her).

The new leader will find her or himself with limited time, options and leverage. Expect Cuban missile crisis-style brinksmanship. The EU at first refusing to negotiate and disdainfully saying they won’t move an inch. Seeing Britain making credible preparations, urgent negotiations resume. At two minutes to midnight, the EU might just agree to something based on the May deal but with the guarantee of full exit from the customs union / single market and of a free trade agreement before Britain’s scheduled 2022 election. This might be enough for the frazzled Brexiteers to accept. Credit will no doubt be attributed to something else (perhaps Donald Trump’s offer to Britain of a beautiful free trade agreement or Italy’s threat to leave the Euro). Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

If there is no miracle agreement, the only practical alternatives appear to be a no-deal exit (likely to be less damaging than generally thought but still scary and uncertain) or a general election (a failed government with a tiny majority would find it hard to avoid this, and even harder to win).  There is unlikely to be a third chance.

So for a deal to happen, the EU must believe that otherwise there will be a no-deal exit (and want to avoid this); Government MPs must believe that otherwise there will be an early election (and their oblivion); and the new leader has to believe that Conservative voters are willing to see Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.   The last one is probably the easiest.

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