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The consensus is that there must be an orderly transition – but Theresa May is finished

Most MPs seem to favour a final choice between a Brexiteer and a Remainer.

It might seem that Theresa May, in calling an election, made the worst such miscalculation since Ted Heath’s in February 1974. But it was worse than that. Heath lost to Harold Wilson, a former prime minister of huge stature. Mrs May’s adversary was Jeremy Corbyn, who until early on 9 June was a figure of contempt for almost her entire party. The humiliation is abject.

So intent are the Tories on survival, however, that apportioning blame has taken a lower priority; but MPs feel the burden rests with May, which explains why she is on borrowed time.

Friends of Lynton Crosby, his own reputation as the Red Adair of politics already depleted after the Brexit vote, have briefed that Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s two ex-advisers, were to blame for the inane “strong and stable” slogan and for manufacturing a personality cult of a prime minister with no personality. Many MPs blame Crosby.

Timothy has denied writing the most toxic parts of the manifesto; Ben Gummer (in whose defeat colleagues take an almost obscene delight) cannot; Hill, who appears to have evaporated, is blamed for a negative communications operation that kept May from the media and the public. Both Hill and Timothy are blamed for encouraging her to ignore advice from anyone else, especially cabinet ministers.

Tories don’t want a leadership contest yet: the Democratic Unionist Party must be squared, the Queen’s Speech (largely anodyne) secured and the Brexit negotiations embarked upon. Graham Brady, whose stature was never negligible but has rocketed in his conduct as chair of the 1922 Committee, has decreed the boat must not be rocked.

Michael Gove is back, broadcasting unity. The speed with which Boris Johnson denied stories that he was “on manoeuvres” suggested some self-knowledge but also a sense of siege, in which only if everybody keeps his head can a Tory government survive.

The anger in the aftermath of the result has mildly abated. The bad news for May is that, even when calmer, most of those on whose support she depends still believe she cannot lead them into an election. One suggested she should use her party conference speech in October to say, “Thank you and good night,” and declare the contest for her successor open. Another, angrier, said he would be astonished if she lasted that long.

Ironically – as the man after whom it is named has been agitating contrary to the prevailing advice – the Heseltine doctrine weighs heavily on those anxious to promote a rival leader: he who wields the knife never wears the crown. The consensus is that there must be an orderly transition, with Mrs May going of her own volition: or, at least, after a visit from the men in suits (who haven’t been seen in action for some years), made to look as though the departure is of her own volition. But few want that just yet.

Nonetheless, Tories are talking about four possible candidates (so far) who – when a vacancy occurs – they would like to see in the contest. There is also the hope that if that contest doesn’t happen for several months yet, the party will have enough time to study the demeanour of potential leaders under fire and at a time of pressure and possible crisis, and appraise their lack or otherwise of what David Davis has called “self-indulgence”.

Most MPs – indeed, Tories generally – seem to favour a final choice between a Brexiteer and a Remainer (as with the English Civil War, ancient distinctions threaten to last a few generations yet). Virtually all Theresa May’s party may be Leavers now, but it is hard to convince the ur-Leavers of the sincerity of the converts, especially after their experience of Mrs May.

A group of younger MPs of throbbing ambition has remained close to Johnson, not least because their talents are so limited that he is their best chance of achieving office. The extent of their wit is that they also sincerely expect him to reward them if he gets to No 10. It was down to them that last Sunday’s stories appeared in the press.

Johnson may be lazy, duplicitous and inept, but he is not stupid, hence the ferocity and very public nature of his denials after the reports. His reputation dented after the debacle of his 2016 leadership bid and by his amateurish conduct at the Foreign Office, quite a lot of the lustre has come off.

Although the Tories are belatedly desperate to connect with what Harold Macmillan once called “young people”, and Johnson has the knack of doing that through his buffoon act, his stock has declined among colleagues and at the grass roots, and even he knows it.

Amber Rudd would be well placed if her majority in Hastings were 40 or 50 times the 346 she attained. She couldn’t possibly lead what will be an election campaign of unpre­cedented intensity and still hope to be in the Commons after it. Remainers are thus pinning their hopes on Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, who demonstrated his ruthlessness in his reappointment interview with May by demanding she sack the advisers he blamed for briefing against him during the campaign.

Also – because, as I wrote here before the election, he had not been consulted about the suicidal social care scheme – he demanded a restoration of cabinet government. His credentials are better than ever, but after the charisma-free campaign the Tories have just witnessed, Spreadsheet Phil isn’t the man to break the mould.

The Brexiteers’ Brexiteer is David Davis. Defeated for the leadership in 2005, he has changed since then: he is a better communicator, more self-deprecating and viewed by colleagues as an approachable man with principles they can respect, even if they don’t always agree with them. A large number of MPs want him to stand. Nothing can be certain, and the party is thrashing about wildly while attempting to ­re-anchor itself, but the cleanest contest for now would be Hammond v Davis.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.