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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:06pm

Tory MPs may despise Boris Johnson but he is the man they think can win an election

By Stephen Bush

By a margin of more than two to one, Conservative activists support the legalisation of euthanasia, a new YouGov poll has discovered. The trouble is, according to some candidates for the Tory leadership, they believe it applies to parties as well as people.

If you talk to most Conservative MPs they will agree with both of the following statements. First, to call an election before Britain has formally left the European Union is to court death-by-ballot-box. The Tories would be deserted by Leave voters, who don’t believe that they are committed to leaving the bloc, and by Remain voters, who do. Compounding the misery, the party cannot change the subject from Brexit during an election campaign because it has done little in the past two years, outside  Michael Gove’s environment portfolio and David Gauke’s justice brief, to recommend itself to voters. An unfinished Brexit and a poor governing record are a lethal cocktail that could finish the Tory party for good.

The second piece of common wisdom is that parliament has repeatedly shown its willingness to block a no-deal Brexit. There is no majority for such an option and the Speaker has repeatedly warned that the Commons should not be ignored.

Put the two statements together and you reach an obvious conclusion. The next Tory leader should do anything he or she can to take Britain out of the EU before the next election, which is 2022. That means Theresa May’s successor should not pursue no-deal, which would be blocked by parliament and would therefore precipitate an unwinnable election.

Despite this, Conservative activists are lining up behind candidates promising exactly that. Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Boris Johnson have all expressed various shades of relaxation about attempting a no-deal exit. Raab and Javid both say their first preference is to leave with a deal but want to retain the option to walk out without one. Their preferred method to “prepare” for no deal is a radical budget, increasing the country’s readiness to absorb the economic shock and logistical nightmare of a non-negotiated exit.

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Raab’s case has been boosted by a blog post from the non-partisan think tank the Institute for Government (IFG), which concluded that a sufficiently resolute prime minister could take the UK out of the European Union without a deal, regardless of parliament’s views. The blog post has been well-circulated at Westminster and Raab has made it a key part of his one-on-one pitch to fellow Tory MPs.

But there is a hole in the argument: the IFG concedes that its analysis only holds if John Bercow, the Speaker, rigidly sticks to established conventions. He might not.

Since becoming Speaker in 2009, Bercow’s political mission has been to increase the clout of the House of Commons. The first thing he did on arrival at the Speaker’s House was to instruct his clerks to find ways to inconvenience the then Labour government, and there is no realistic prospect that he will not similarly frustrate an executive led by Raab or Javid.

It is a measure of how far the debate has moved that those two politicians represent a middle-of-the-road position on Brexit. McVey and Leadsom are both running on a promise to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal – not as a fallback position, but as a desirable end state.

Although neither has a good chance of winning, they are both likely to do well enough with MPs to stick around until the contest’s final stages, when a stumble by one of the leading contenders, or tactical voting to frustrate a particularly detested candidate, might allow them to sneak through. (For now, Raab holds the dubious accolade of being the candidate that Conservative MPs would most like to prevent reaching the final vote of party members.)

The frontrunner, meanwhile, is Boris Johnson, whose position at the head of the pack is strengthening rather than weakening. He is picking up support from across the Conservative Party, including among those who once vowed to do everything short of murder to prevent him becoming prime minister. He, too, is making two contradictory promises to Tory MPs: the first is to deliver Brexit by any means necessary by 31 October, and the second is to avoid an election. But since this parliament shows no appetite to agree any plausible negotiated exit, and every desire to block a chaotic one, he would need a new parliament.

Pointing out those simple facts, however, is to doom yourself with members. The leadership hopes of Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, have been seriously damaged by a Telegraph article in which he spelled out the likely electoral consequences of pursuing no deal. He is joined on Mount Realism by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who has been still blunter about the need to swallow any concession necessary to get this parliament to pass Brexit before an election, and Michael Gove, who has indicated a willingness to seek a further extension if needed. None of them has been well-rewarded for their candour.

Why not? The problem is not that the majority of Conservative MPs are blind to the logic of the more realistic campaigns. They know full well that to go to a general election while Brexit is unresolved could mean that the party is not just defeated but destroyed. But they also believe that an election cannot be avoided.

And that is why so many are turning towards the one man they believe has a chance of winning that general election, despite their own doubts about him: Boris Johnson. When your party is so gravely ill, it’s hard to tell if the medicine you’re about to swallow is kill or cure. 

This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance