BREXIT UPDATE 34: The Conservative Leadership Contest: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

June 16, 2019

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BREXIT UPDATE 34: The Conservative Leadership Contest

The Rules of the Game

The rules of the Conservative Party leadership contest would read like a parlour game if the stakes were not so high and serious.  To qualify, each MP needs the support of eight other MPs.  To get through the first round, an MP needs 17 votes from his or her fellow-MPs.   To pass the second round, each MP needs 33 votes.  Should all candidates reach these amounts, the person with the fewest votes drops out.  The process continues till everyone is eliminated except the final two. The first round was held on Thursday (June 13); and new rounds are scheduled for next Tuesday (June 18), Wednesday (June 19) and Thursday (June 20).  When the list is whittled down to the final two, the process passes to the Conservative Party membership (160,000 strong), who will choose between the two to pick the next Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.[1]

The First Round

Last Thursday (June 13) ten candidates qualified for the first round; three (the former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, the former Work and Pensions Secretary  Esther McVey and former Chief Whip Mark Harper) were eliminated.  The runaway winner was the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, with 114 votes.  Second came the present Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, a long way behind Johnson with 43 votes; third was the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, on 37 votes; the former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab was fourth with 27 votes; the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, fifth on 23; the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, sixth on 20; and the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, seventh, just scraping through on 19.  Matt Hancock dropped out on Friday (June 14); so that leaves six.[2]

The Candidates and Brexit

It seems generally to be agreed among Tory MPs that the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister should be a Brexiteer, preferably one who campaigned for Leave in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.  Despite becoming a born-again Leaver – the rigidity of her “red lines” owed much to the zeal of the convert as well as to her robotic nature — the Maybot was always regarded with suspicion by the Brexiteers, because she had campaigned for and voted Remain in 2016.  She is now regarded as a Remainer at heart who betrayed the cause of delivering Brexit.   So Remainer Tories have not stood for leader, regarding their candidature as hopeless in the current climate.  All of the original ten were Leavers in some form; and the six who have survived the first round include three who campaigned for Leave in 2016: Johnson, Gove and Raab, while Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are born-again Brexiteers who campaigned and voted for Remain during the referendum.

Most of the candidates say they will try to secure a deal, but, if one cannot be achieved, they will take the UK out of the EU, deal or no deal.  Rory Stewart is the only candidate adamantly opposed to No Deal.  A  former governor of a region in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, he is an eccentric, “wild-card”, oddly appealing character who still supports the Maybot’s deal (perhaps the only person in the country who does); he has been walking across Britain engaging the public in dialogue about Brexit. He has been described by the radical left website Spiked On Line as a “kindly colonial official” trying to sort out the natives (in this case the lower orders in his own country) by means of empathy. Stewart has been achieving a strange popularity with the general public that is being dubbed “Rorymania”.[3]

But why is Boris Johnson so far ahead?

Until fairly recently, it was said that, immensely popular though Johnson is with the grassroots Tory membership, most Conservative MPs dislike and distrust him so much that he would have difficulty making the final two on the ballot.  Even now, many Tory pundits are issuing strong warnings to their party not to elect him.  The Conservative journalist Matthew Parris has written in a recent article in the Times that Johnson is:

“a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist’s ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory.”[4]

Yet, like President Trump (who has endorsed him and whom he strongly resembles), Johnson manages to get away with everything.  Even moderate MPs are now supporting him.

The main reason seems to be the fear of a general election that, it is is widely thought, could take place in the near future. The choices facing the new Conservative Prime Minister are:  1) achieve a deal with the EU before October 31 (the new deadline) that is acceptable to Parliament; 2) Revoke Article 50 (ie cancel Brexit); 3) Ask for another extension; 4) Leave without a deal.

The first, though the professed aim of Johnson and the other candidates, is highly unlikely to be achieved.  The EU has insisted it will not re-negotiate the backstop; the EU leadership is preoccupied with the election of new Presidents of the European Commission and European Council [5] and is sick and tired of Brexit; moreover, EU leaders detest Johnson, who is one of the UK politicians for whom, according to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, a “special place in Hell” has been reserved (see Brexit Update 4).   No Conservative Prime Minister would ever consent to revoking Article 50 (which would only increase the power of Farage’s Brexit Party).   Asking for yet another extension would also empower Farage; so the Maybot’s successor would probably not take this option.  The only choice left would be to deliver Brexit by leaving without a deal.  This, however, as we know, is strongly opposed by Parliament, which has passed a non-binding motion rejecting a no-deal Brexit (see Brexit Update 12).  The only way to resolve such a conflict between the Prime Minister and Parliament would be to go to the country, in a referendum or a General Election.  It is highly unlikely that a new Tory Prime Minister would agree to a second referendum; so a General Election is looking like the only way ahead.

And, after their catastrophic performance in the local elections, the European Parliament elections and the Peterborough by-election (in the last two losing most of their votes to the Brexit Party), most Conservative MPs see Boris Johnson as their only hope of winning a General Election.  Much though many dislike him, they believe he is the only Tory candidate who possesses the charisma and popular appeal needed to defeat both Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn.  Memories have revived of his victories in the London mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012, when even Labour supporters voted for “Boris” (as he became known), who was regarded at that time as a charming, entertaining eccentric.  It is overlooked, however, that a) the public now knows far more about Johnson than in 2012; many have seen through him; and b) electing a Mayor of London is very different from voting for a Prime Minister.[6]

Another reason that Johnson is so far ahead is, paradoxically, because of his opportunistic lack of belief in anything except the advancement of Boris Johnson.  Moderate Tory MPs are supporting Johnson partly for the reason that he is not Dominic Raab, a Brexiteer ideologue who genuinely believes in No Deal.  It is significant that Raab, who before the contest, had been regarded as a front-runner, came fourth in the first round; also the two women candidates who were eliminated in the first round, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey, are also convinced advocates of No Deal.  The Conservative moderates believe that Johnson will be more flexible than Raab, who has caused outrage by refusing to rule out the possibility of proroguing (ie suspending) Parliament in order to carry through No Deal.[7]  As Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Minister, pointed out in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday (June 12), the last attempt to prorogue Parliament was carried out by King Charles I; the move, Starmer commented, “didn’t end well for Charles I”.

The Labour –led Cross-Party Motion to Block No Deal

The parliamentary debate just mentioned was about a cross-party motion, led by the Labour Party, to begin to block No Deal by means of MPs taking control of parliamentary business on June 25, in order to initiate the first stages of a  parliamentary Bill that would prevent the government from leaving the EU without a deal on October 31.  MPs had taken control of parliamentary business for a day twice before (see Brexit Updates 17, 18 and 19) but had not managed to reach a consensus on any course of action.  The Cooper-Letwin Bill to prevent No Deal was passed in one day and became law; but the new Act only referred to that particular leaving-date, not to any further leaving dates (see Brexit Updates 22 and 23).

On Wednesday, the motion was defeated by 11 votes:  the Ayes: 298: the Noes: 309.  The government had whipped all Conservative MPs to vote against; Labour had whipped all Labour MPs to vote in favour.  Ten Conservative MPs rebelled to vote in favour; but 21 Labour MPs rebelled by either voting in favour or abstaining – these were evidently Labour MPs from Leave-voting areas, fearing the response of their constituents, in view of the fact that, if a deal is not achieved by October 31, the only alternatives to leaving without a deal would be either revoking Article 50 or asking for yet another extension. [8]

So the new Prime Minister will simply have to do nothing and the UK will leave without a deal on October 31.  However, as stated above, it is widely expected that the only way of resolving the conflict that would take place between the government and Parliament would be in the form of a General Election.  A possible scenario being put forward is that, as the prospect of leaving without a deal looms – or even earlier — Jeremy Corbyn will table a vote of no confidence in the government; and it is likely that ten or so Conservative MPs, desperate to prevent No Deal, would vote to bring down their own government, thus (if Labour MPs  from Leave-voting areas could be prevented from rebelling against their Party whip) triggering a General Election.[9]

Johnson is being kept on a tight leash by his campaign team; he has given very few speeches and interviews, in case he utters any of his famous gaffes and outrageous comments.[10]   A Channel 4 hustings debate is taking place later today (Sunday June 16), in which Johnson will not be participating.  He will, however, be taking part in a BBC debate on Tuesday, after the second round of voting.   The next Brexit Update will discuss the further developments in the contest.







[4] Quoted in an article in this week’s New Statesman by Simon Heffer:



[6] See: