Undisguised rivalry. David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Source: Getty
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Leadership speculation harms the Tories but they can't help themselves

Conservative MPs' anguish flows from their knowledge that Cameron is both the best candidate and not good enough to deliver outright victory.

Some features of the political landscape are so banally unchanging that Westminster, with its addiction to volatility, chooses simply to ignore them. One such is the fact that David Cameron is by far the best candidate to lead the Tory party into the next election and will do so. The incumbent has many flaws. I wrote about at least one of them in the magazine this week. But there is no ready alternative. The majority of Tory MPs – and, when they are being candid, Labour MPs – can see that Cameron’s capabilities as a confident performer, offering the reassurance of continuity in difficult times, constitute the Tories' best chance of thwarting Ed Miliband.

It follows that those Conservatives who currently encourage talk of the succession have already decided that there is no way Cameron can win in 2015 or actively want him to fail. That is plainly true of a hard core of MPs – the fifth column, as Matthew Parris once described them – who relish the prospect of seeing the Prime Minister humiliated. By most accounts their number is no more than around 30.

More reasonable Tory MPs have learned to live with the fanaticism in their midst and wait in hope that proximity to the election will eventually impose discipline. There was, therefore, astonishment at the appearance of stories in the Times and the Mail on Sunday in the past week stoking speculation about Boris Johnson’s return to parliament. It was reported that Downing Street wanted the London Mayor to get involved in the general election campaign and bind himself in institutional loyalty to the Cameron project before polling day by standing as an MP. This has been widely interpreted as a gambit by the Chancellor to flush out Boris’s intentions and force his hand, thereby destabilising whatever strategy he might have to position himself as a White Knight saviour of the Tories after a 2015 defeat. Boris was said to be enraged.

Of course, the net outcome of all of this is that collectively the Tories look a little bit less familiar with the distinction between arse and elbow. News stories predicated on top Tories calculating the probability of defeat makes defeat more probable. Seen from the point of view of the rank and file, loyal but mostly anonymous MPs – the ones who just want to get on with trying to govern effectively and taking the fight to Labour – all of this briefing and counter-briefing is self-indulgent and self-destructive. It’s bad enough when maverick rebels on the back benches rock the boat. Seeing it rocked from the centre is thoroughly depressing.

And yet the speculation won’t quite go away because most Tories have done the maths and worked out that, in all likelihood, a Commons majority is beyond their reach. They might pin Labour back as the economy recovers. Ukip might shrivel after the European elections. But even in the most auspicious circumstances it is hard to see Cameron’s share of the vote soaring to the 40-plus mark at which point control of parliament becomes a realistic prospect. And if the limit to Conservative ambition is being the biggest party in a hung parliament, there is also a natural ceiling on loyalty to the leader – even when he is the best one available. This is the underlying cause of all Tory anguish . They know it doesn’t get better without Cameron and they know that with Cameron it isn’t good enough.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”