The King is Dead. Long Live The King!
Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party and PM when her predecessor, David Cameron, broke his word, saying that he was, after all, not the man to deliver Brexit, leaving front-line politics shortly after. The party held a leadership contest, but with withdrawals and eliminations, the final choice of two candidates (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsome) did not get passed to the membership of the party as Leadsome withdrew, leaving May as the last woman standing and the winner by default.
Theresa May was described as a bashful remainer, the then Home Secretary had a low profile during the referendum, but enough to convince Brexiters that they had a “remainer PM”. In most peoples’ opinions, she did her best to “deliver Brexit”, but the inevitable compromises (most notably on a backstop solution for Northern Ireland) were too much for Brexit purists in her party. She survived a “no confidence” motion in November, which theoretically left her untouchable for twelve months, however, an inability to get her deal through the Commons, an abortive attempt at “compromise” (one involving no movement on her side) with Labour and disastrous results in local elections, recently (and in a snap general election in June 2017) left her extremely vulnerable. Faced with the prospect of a further humiliation in the European parliament elections which she had hoped the UK would not take part in, she bowed to the inevitable and said she would step down on the day of the European poll in the UK.
Nominations for party leader require the backing of two other Tory MPs. Currently, 11 people have declared their intentions to run and more are expected before nominations close on Friday of next week.
The front runners include Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsome (all ardent “hard Brexiteers), Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid. Some (notably Johnson) have proclaimed that they will not seek a further extension in October and are prepared for the UK to crash out without a deal. Others are more cautious.
However, to coin a phrase, “nothing has changed”. The EU have reiterated that they will not re-open discussions on the withdrawal agreement which makes all of the “hard Brexit” rhetoric of having to “be prepared to walk away with no deal” from the negotiations in order to get a good deal moot: there are no negotiations.
Equally, there is no majority in parliament that will accept a “no deal” outcome – some Tory MPs have stated that they would bring the government down in a no confidence motion if “no deal” ever became government policy.
The Brexit faithful want different things, ranging from a very soft Brexit, to EEA membership (Norway option or Common Market II), to a Canada-style free trade agreement to complete rupture with the EU and reliance on WTO trading rules – they don’t agree amongst themselves.
So, whoever becomes party leader at the end of July when the part membership gets to choose between the last two candidates standing, the new leader faces exactly the same intractable problem that May has been confronting since December. The choice is May’s deal (or one that binds the UK to the EU more tightly since the EU would agree to that); revocation of A50 notice, a further referendum, or allowing a “no deal” scenario to become likely, almost certainly triggering a general election.
The King is dead; long live the King!