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Paul Vallely: Conundrum for the No. 10 hopefuls

31 May 2019

The next Conservative leader has to appeal to four groups, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson leaves his home in London, before the European Parliament elections, last week

Boris Johnson leaves his home in London, before the European Parliament elections, last week

THE dramatic European elections result will push the candidates for the Conservative leadership in the direction of a hard Brexit, we are told. The Tories were reduced from 18 seats in Strasbourg to just four, in their worst election performance since 1832. Having got just nine per cent of the vote, they can only neutralise the Brexit Party by aping its approach. Only a hardliner such as Boris Johnson can beat both Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, they say. I am not so sure about any of this.

Will Mr Johnson’s name even be on the ballot paper? A new Tory leader has to appeal to four constituencies. They have to be able to win the approval of a majority of Tory MPs, of Tory activists, of the current House of Commons, and of the whole electorate. In that order. The problem is the desires of these four groups are far from identical. They may not even overlap at all.

The new leader first has to persuade Tory MPs to whittle down the list of candidates in such a way that it leaves them as one of the two names on the ballot that will go to Conservative Party members, who will choose one of the two. Candidates are currently jockeying over who takes the hardest line on a no-deal outcome. Even centrists such as the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have been forced to embrace the possibility of a no-deal exit. Yet, there is a sizeable group of pro-EU Tories, as Philip Hammond has warned, who privately say they would be willing to bring down their own minority government to avoid no deal.

Next, the new leader must convince the 160,000 Tory activists who, by contrast, favour a hard Brexit. As many as 75 per cent of them support no deal, one poll says. That might push would-be leaders towards the possibility of a coalition with the Brexit Party in a future Westminster Parliament, the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt has even suggested.

But then the new Prime Minister must avoid a motion of no confidence in the Commons, where MPs of all parties agree on very little — apart from their overwhelming opposition to no deal.

Finally comes the British voter. It is hard to get an exact read-out here. Two-thirds of the public did not vote in the Euro elections; of those who did, 5.8 million voted for the Brexit Party and UKIP — considerably fewer than the 17.4 million who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum; likewise, the 6.7 million who voted for Remain parties last week is far below the 16.1 million who voted remain in 2016. Psephologists are divided on how to factor in the Tory and Labour votes to this equation.

Perhaps Boris Johnson is the answer to this conundrum. He is, after all, in the bon mot of one senior Tory MP, “the Kama Sutra candidate — having held every position on every conceivable topic”. Strikingly, no senior Remainer has even, as I write, put themselves forward for election as our next Prime Minister. The person presenting as the “unity candidate” is the Eurosceptic Environment Secretary, Michael Gove: the frontman, with Mr Johnson, of the original Leave campaign, is now the moderate. That is a measure of how far this intractable debate has shifted.

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