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Why the Conservative Leadership Contenders Have Backed Themselves Into a Corner Over Brexit

 

The Conservative leadership race is in full flow. The winner automatically becomes Prime Minister. To win, the future leader must put them self into a position that will limit their ability as prime minister.

The winner will face the same parliament as Theresa May, and a public more divided. An election tomorrow is unlikely to lead to a working majority for any party, no matter who leads the Tories, as recent polling shows. Arguably this was clear before this year’s European elections, but they illustrate the point perfectly – there are now enough voters who are either in favour of stopping Brexit or in favour of a no-deal Brexit and who are willing to switch which party they vote for based entirely upon this that, whichever way the Tories swing, a third party will take enough seats in England to prevent a majority for either party.

As this electoral hard truth is relatively clear, its unlikely the new Prime Minister will call a new election before they have delivered Brexit. The prevailing wisdom from Westminster strategists is that the Lib Dems and Brexit Party will fall away once Brexit has been delivered (which I do not agree with, as there is ample scope for post-Brexit politics to become an angry blame game, but I am not advising Prime Ministers on when to hold elections). A new Prime Minister who is not calling an election will be forced to continue playing with the current fragile balance in parliament and hope that parliament doesn’t force an election.

Parliament itself hamstrings the next Prime Minister. Ever since Theresa May failed to secure a majority in 2017, this parliament has been in Brexit deadlock. MPs have made it clear that they are against a no-deal Brexit, against a Brexit deal, and against revoking Article 50 – either through a second referendum or through government withdrawing the notification without one. They have made clear that they are willing to not only block any option open to government but to restrict government’s power to mitigate the damage of inaction through symbolic votes.

Several Conservative MPs have said that they will vote down a government that tries to leave the EU with no deal, while Labour and the assorted other opposition parties have committed publicly to voting against the government should there be a vote of no confidence. From what MPs have said, even when taking into account the handful from other parties who may vote for the government, a government that tried to leave the EU with no deal would be removed before it were possible to do so (but perhaps too late to stop it).

As the EU has so far consistently said that negotiations will not re-open, there’s no guarantee that there is another backstop open to the next government. As we have now decided that this pre-deal fall-back position is to be referred to as the deal, it seems improbable that a new government could argue the case for it more convincingly than May managed. If the EU were to agree to re-open negotiations, Article 50 would again need to be extended to provide time for these new negotiations.

Yet the Conservative leadership race has seen the ERG cement their place as the Tories’ most powerful faction. As a large and well organised bloc of votes in this race, their MPs have demanded that candidates commit not to extend Brexit beyond October. Prominent members of the ERG have hinted that they would vote against a government that tried to extend Article 50, which again would be enough to bring down a government and force an election. Boris Johnson wasn’t the only candidate to pledge that he would not extend Article 50 beyond October.

It is conventional wisdom (backed up by surveys in this case) that the Tory membership is far more pro-Brexit than the average voter, and that the Tory MPs acting as the most coherent bloc are Brexit supporters. When the candidates know that they are putting themselves in this situation, it is no wonder that so many have floated the idea of proroguing parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit, avoid an election, and worry about the catastrophic damage that would do to democracy later.

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