Steve Richards: The Tory leadership contest is another Brexit fantasy world

Written by Steve Richards on 1 July 2016 in Opinion

The Tory winner faces the most mountainous task of any prime minister since Winston Churchill took over in 1940.

Every minute there is another volcanic eruption. Gove stands. Johnson pulls out, stabbed by Gove. What will happen next?  This is politics at its most tumultuous. Nothing seems to be certain. There is a political vacuum. Markets totter.

But step aside fleetingly from the feverish speculation about where the UK is heading, who will be Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition and a surprising amount of incontestable information is available. Each morning I make a list of ‘known knowns’. The list is nowhere near as long as the one that contains speculative unknowns, but there is quite a lot out there that offers some shape to the wild shapelessness.

In spite of his threat to do so, we know David Cameron will not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. If he had pulled the trigger the UK would be on its way out now with most of the negotiating power lying with the rest of the EU. Instead there is delay. For all the uncertainty delay is preferable to speedy exit.

In the meantime there is only one UK leader negotiating with the EU and that is Nicola Sturgeon. She is engaged in a dialogue with the intention of staying in the EU. In some ways this is the weirdest twist of all in the current mind-boggling drama. The only current negotiation between a UK leader and the rest of the EU is over how to stay in.  We also know that one of the few other secure leaders in the UK, the Mayor of London, Saddiq Khan, is also demanding that the capital’s pro-EU views are taken fully into account.

Above all we know that of all the fantasies woven by the Brexit campaign the most significant was in relation to the single market. In order to make exaggerated claims about controlling immigration the Brexit campaign pretended that the UK did not need to be part of the single market. Now every candidate in the Conservative leadership contest is insisting that the UK must have access to the single market while also claiming that it must also no longer be obliged to accept free movement of labour.

Finally we know almost certainly too that the next Prime Minister will be an existing member of the cabinet, Theresa May or Michael Gove. If Boris had won he would have become Prime minister without ever having been a Cabinet minister.

All these known knowns interconnect. The most important is the unsurprising focus in the Tory leadership contest on the need for the UK to have access to the single market. Do not take too seriously the claims of the candidates who will all insist they can negotiate a magical deal in which the UK gets all that it wants. The candidates are fighting a leadership contest where the electorate both in parliament and in the membership need to hear that this dream can be achieved. As such the Tory contest is an extension of the referendum, another Brexit fantasy world. The serious negotiations begin in September when a candidate has won and begins to face the consequences. The new UK Prime Minister has one card, when to trigger the negotiation. The rest of the EU will then have the ace, the recognition of every candidate in the Tory contest that the single market remains essential to the UK.

The winner of the Conservative contest therefore needs to be not only a brilliant negotiator, but also a genius that can deal with the gradual realisation of some in the ‘Out’ camp that the deal available from the EU will be nowhere near as dreamlike as the one floated in the leadership contest. The winner must also get a deal that makes London, Scotland and the rest of the 48 per cent from Remain less uneasy than they are at the moment. That, too, will be difficult. But the alternative of giving Scotland the ammunition to leave the UK, turning London from the booming city of Europe to a neurotic basket case and fuelling the already deep sense of fuming anxiety of those that supported Remain is much worse. In other words the Tory winner faces the most mountainous task of any Prime Minister since Winston Churchill took over in 1940.

The task is made easier by the state of the Labour party. The main candidates in the Tory leadership contest are fully formed politicians, tested by politics at the highest level for many years. Theresa May has survived the Home Office for more than one parliamentary term, a department that killed off some of her Labour predecessors within minutes. She was also involved in the early attempts to revive her party after its slaughter in 1997. Michael Gove has shown he can act brutally and with immediate impact. Compare his ruthlessly effective stabbing of Boris with Labour MPs rebelling against their leader without the same immediate impact. In addition before breakfast Gove has a thousand ideas and policies. For all their bloody turmoil the Conservatives have big figures shaped by power and the earlier moves to make their party electable.

Step back and what do we see? One way or another the UK will have access to the single market whatever else happens. A new Tory Prime Minister faces the nightmare of a negotiation with the rest of the EU and dealing with the sense of betrayal when previously declared objectives are not fully met. Whoever is Labour leader faces a bigger nightmare in terms of managing a party that is split at least three ways. When a Tory Prime Minister faces a nightmare a Labour leader should be living the dream. No Labour leader will be living the dream for some time to come.

Surprisingly we know quite a lot as the fog descends.



Picture by: Matt Dunham/AP/Press Association Images

Steve Richards presents part one of The Corbyn Story on BBC Radio 4 on Monday July 11th at 8pm.

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