Brexit blog: Tories need to settle on a deal before settling for a leader

News Page 12th December 2018

Kate Ironside is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Northampton and a former political journalist. She spent 13 years at Westminster, working for Central Press, the Daily Express and BBC Westminster and, for 17 years, wrote a weekly award-winning column on the European Union for the Western Morning News. She sits on the executive board of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and has written Reporting Power, the official BJTC textbook on public affairs.

The Prime Minister says she is going to fight the Conservative party vote of no confidence in her leadership tonight with everything she’s got.

It is extraordinary. We have seen politicians crack under much less pressure. Yet Theresa May just ploughs on, daring her critics to do their worst.

The fundamental problem the Conservative party has got is this: what is the credible alternative to May’s Brexit plan and would any other leader be able to get that credible alternative through the House of Commons?

There is no obvious answer. Any Brexiteer leadership contender prepared to stand on a platform arguing for a hard, no-deal Brexit would face the implacable opposition of the Conservative Remainers and would alarm those Conservative MPs who find themselves trapped in the middle of this debate. However such a candidate might have a fighting chance to winning the leadership of a split party. But having achieved that objective, they would then find themselves in a very similar position to Mrs May, utterly unable to drive their preferred outcome through the House of Commons.

Why? Because the key metrics still stand. The Conservative party on its own doesn’t have a majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative party is fundamentally split on Europe. And its Remain camp would have no hesitation in joining Opposition MPs in voting down a no-deal. And we would be back to Square One.

Let’s throw the dice another way. Any leadership contender standing on a platform arguing for a Norway plus relationship with the EU – in which the UK remained a rule-taker and continued to pay substantial funds to the EU – would face the reverse problem. Both Remainers and Brexiteers would argue – indeed both camps have already argued – that such an arrangement would actually be even worse than Mrs May’s messy deal. The UK might as well remain within the EU and keep its say over what the rules are. So a Norway plus leadership contender standing on that platform would command limited support from both Conservative MPs and, crucially, Conservative activists. They would be unlikely to win the contest. Even if they did win, they too would struggle to get a Norway plus deal past the House of Commons although I suspect they would struggle less than a no-deal candidate.

So let’s roll the dice once more and take a leadership contender from the fervent Remain camp of the Conservative party committed to a second referendum. They would not have a hope of winning the leadership contest – there are enough Brexit Conservative MPs and Brexit grassroots activists to torpedo that ambition.

The big question, therefore, is what deal is the Conservative party for? Until they have resolved that question, they will not resolve the leadership. If MPs vote down Mrs May tonight, we are likely to enter a phase of rolling Conservative leadership elections, just as we saw in the post-Major years.

There may well be attempts to present the party with a joint Remain/Brexit ticket much like the Ken Clarke/John Redwood double act offered to Conservatives after their 1997 drubbing. As William Hague, the successful winner of that contest scornfully said: “Have they learnt nothing?”

The problems of such a joint ticket is that it does not resolve the argument. As the Brexiteer John Redwood said at the launch of that remarkable joint leadership bid, if he disagreed with pro-European Clarke, he would “have a jolly good argument”. And that’s precisely what the Conservatives have been doing ever since. What they need to do is to resolve the argument. The trouble is they can’t. And hence the convulsions.

The key beneficiaries of any Conservative leadership upheaval will be Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

And ultimately this is what Mrs May is gambling on. Once again, she is daring her critics to move against her. She has only a few hours left to save her premiership. For now.


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