Richard North, 18/05/2019  
 


There was a moment a little while back when hope overruled experience and we thought a May/Corbyn deal just might be possible – if only because the leaders were acting out of a sense of self-preservation. After six weeks, though, they have ground to a halt and Mr Corbyn has pulled the plug, blaming Mrs May for her "intransigence".

In truth, though, it was never going to be and especially now when there's blood in the water from a mortally wounded prime minister, allowing Corbyn to assert of the government that it had become "ever more unstable and its authority eroded".

Even if a deal could have been concluded, it would have needed Mrs May to have stood by it, acting as its guarantor. And she is not long for this political world, leaving "serious questions" about "the government's ability to deliver on any compromise agreement".

Unsurprisingly, that doesn't mean that Mrs May has given up. If nothing else, she gets full marks for perseverance, apparently mulling her indicative vote as a prelude to the fourth and final vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, still scheduled for the first full week in June.

The idea, it seems, is to use a preferential voting system – unprecedented in the Commons – where MPs are asked to rank their preferred (or least detested) options.

In theory, this will yield a clear winner – even at the risk of delivering something no one would have picked as their first choice. But it gives Mrs May the opportunity to pin it to the political declaration, committing to its implementation if the collective agrees to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

Quite what the voting dynamics will be in this case is hard to determine. But one can imagine that there may be a singular lack of enthusiasm for ratifying something that has already been rejected three times, in return for the promise of an outcome that no one actually wants.

However, such is the mood of the House – if not the nation – that there is only one preference that will currently command a majority, not just of the Tories but of all sides. That is the departure of Mrs May. Until she has gone, normal politics is "on hold" – not that the word "normal" could be used to describe the current situation.

For the present, we are in the grip of fantasy politics, where MPs show signs of harbouring the belief that a "new broom" could return to Brussels and reopen the negotiations, or at least widen the scope of the opportunities available. And, in that, much will depend on the character of that "broom".

The worst of it is, though, that from the latest YouGov survey of 858 Conservative Party Members, 64 percent oppose Mrs May's deal and 66 percent believe the government should opt for a no-deal – putting the rank and file clearly at odds with the majority of the parliamentary party.

When it comes to renegotiation, only 13 percent of the rank and file think that the government should try for a renegotiation, while a mere 12 percent want it to persevere with trying to get parliament to ratify the existing deal. A pitiful six percent actually want a deal with Labour.

As to the leadership candidates, the Oaf comes out as the clear favourite, with 39 percent of the vote. A poor second is Dominic Raab with 13 percent. The other potential candidates struggle to make single figures, with even Michael Gove only picking up nine percent.

Unsurprisingly, the Oaf scores well on having a "likeable personality" (even if that applies mostly to those who don't know him), scoring 77 percent – more than twenty points ahead of his nearest rival.

But where one sees a clear departure from the real world is in the rankings for "competence". This is the man who was an unmitigated disaster as foreign secretary and whose dismal tenure of the London mayoralty is still the talk of the town. Yet he scores 61 percent, again putting him in the lead.

This provoked one commentator to remark that Rory Stewart, with years of patient, intelligent and diligent service gets a rating of 27 percent, while Johnson with years of lies, cock-ups of different kinds and being the worst foreign secretary in living memory, gets 61 percent.

Traditionally, the Conservatives have been known as the "stupid party", and in this ranking they are living up to that name. One can marginally understand that feeble minds will be attracted to the Oaf, but to rate him as "competent" requires a special brand of delusion.

Through this also runs a strain of cynical calculation, with the Financial Times reporting that it is increasingly common to find Tory MPs who list the flaws in the former foreign secretary, but then ruefully admit: "I'm going to back him anyway". Specifically, he is seen as the only person who can stop Farage.

While Tory MPs variously see him as frivolous, unreliable and a flop in his two years as foreign secretary, not to mention his role in the Brexit chaos that is gripping the party and country, one former pro-Remain cabinet minister admitted to the FT that while he was close to some of the other candidates in a crowded leadership field, he was backing the Oaf. "It's rather against my own expectations", he admitted. "The fact is, for all his flaws, he has a streak of brilliance".

For all that, the Oaf is probably less popular in the parliamentary party than he is with the rank and file, so his best chance is for a short-sharp campaign, where the list of contenders is whittled down to two, allowing him to go head-to-head in a national vote, which he is likely to win by a considerable margin.

Before he gets there, though, MPs have to trim the list through successive votes, with one candidate being eliminated in each round. Unless some voluntarily pull out, we could be in for long process, dragging on through the summer.

And in this, we are dealing with a highly sophisticated electorate which is quite capable of voting tactically. And while successive opinion polls show he is the most popular Tory politician with the general public (as opposed to Tory voters), he is also the most disliked.

That opens the way for his detractors to front a series of stalking horses to ensure that the Oaf never gets his name put in front of the rank and file. If they have their way, they will never actually get a chance to vote for him. But, if Dominic Raab is seen as a credible alternative, the nation may find itself expelled from the frying pan into the fire.

Should he actually take the crown, it is then likely that whatever support the Oaf has in the party will not be reflected in the nation at large. This opens up concerns with MPs which may affect the voting calculus, with the FT remarking that, if they put Johnson into Number 10 they could end up facing a rendezvous with a very angry electorate much earlier than they would like. "Vote Boris, get an election", says one remainer MP.

The scenario they fear is that the Oaf will go to Brussels to try to renegotiate Britain's exit deal in the autumn only to be rebuffed. He would then urge parliament to allow him to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, only to be rebuffed by MPs.

In that scenario – assuming that we don't drop out of the EU by default - MPs are said to be worried that the Oaf might be forced to hold an early election - or a second referendum - to break the deadlock. In the election stakes, even against Corbyn, this is a contest he might lose, especially with the Farage party running interference, costing the Tories vital marginal seats.

Whether leavers or remainers, therefore, this forthcoming leadership contest injects a further level of uncertainty to a situation which is already profoundly uncertain. And if we find it hard to read, the "colleagues" in Brussels will be doubly handicapped, especially as they seem to rely on the UK legacy media for their information.

Politically, they are facing a very difficult choice, come 31 October. By then, patience will almost certainly have run out, and one can imagine there will be a desire to cast the UK adrift, refusing any Article 50 extension application – if it transpires. On the other hand, there will be some pressure to give the new leader a chance to make a case – even the Oaf, who could jump any which way.

This makes for extraordinarily bad news all round. As the risks of a no-deal exit multiply, the ongoing damage brought about by the uncertainty can only continue to exert its effects. If we then end up adding a general election to the mix, without seeing Brexit resolved, the consequences could be explosive.






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