The next Tory leader – be it Boris Johnson or any of the current contenders – faces the same tough Brexit choices as Theresa May without any new options, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Picture the scene: a weary, embattled Prime Minister struggling to hold their party together at home sets out on a desperate journey to Brussels.
Everything they’ve tried has failed: there is no Brexit deal that parliament will accept – not without splitting the Conservative Party in two. With the parliamentary arithmetic, how could things be any different?
Now as the clock ticks down to the Article 50 deadline, the only option left to stop the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal is a humiliating request for an extension.
It sounds familiar, but it’s not just a scene from the past. It’s the UK’s Brexit future, too – because whoever the next Prime Minister is, they’re going to face the exact same scenario come 31 October. Imagine, for a moment, Boris Johnson was forced to ask Michel Barnier, a good bet to be European Commission President by the autumn, for more time.
Amid the drama of a Conservative Party leadership drama reaching its final act, it’s easy to forget that the real crisis remains Brexit – and it’s national, not political. There remain only a handful of highly undesirable routes out, and none of them seem as likely as the Government’s current policy: kicking the can further down the road.
A second EU referendum or revoking Article 50 would put an end to the misery, but neither of those are options readily available to a Tory leader elected with Brexiteer votes.
If the parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t add up, get a new parliament – except the Tories are about to receive their lowest share of the vote in an election ever, and after the votes are counted on Sunday in the European elections, Nigel Farage is going to be more ever-present than at any point in his political career, if you can believe that.
Many of the leading contenders for the Tory leadership, including Boris Johnson, have said they are willing to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. Certainly, a Johnson premiership makes no-deal more likely than it is now – but does it make it politically possible? The parliamentary brake that MPs used to effectively make no-deal impossible in the run-up to the original 29 March deadline has been spent. If a Prime Minister wanted to run out the clock and crash out on Halloween, they could.
But politically, it would destroy their administration and party just as thoroughly as it would have done May’s. ‘One Nation’ Tories from the liberal, pro-EU wing of the party are starting to dust themselves off and get back to their feet after months of being trampled by the ERG. They know they can’t stop a hard Brexiteer from becoming leader, but they can still hold him hostage. Already, there is talk of Johnson’s leadership bid being given the blessing of the leading Tory Remainer, Amber Rudd – that pact could hardly survive a rogue Boris attempt to engineer no-deal.
It would only take a handful of pro-EU Tories voting with Labour and the SNP to pass a motion of no confidence and trigger a general election, either before or immediately after a no-deal Brexit.
Turkey has been negotiating to get into the EU for more than 30 years. In 1933, Western Australia voted for its independence. Neither was an easy enough prospect to actually deliver. That’s why Prime Minister Johnson – or Hunt, Raab, Gove – is likely to find that come October, the only real option available to them is the one May has consistently chosen: let the crisis roll on.