Sunday 23 October 2016

It doesn't matter what side the next PM was on in the poll - all Tories are Leavers now

William Hague

Published 05/07/2016 | 02:30

Protesters demonstrate over the referendum result in London. Photo: Reuters
Protesters demonstrate over the referendum result in London. Photo: Reuters

Even in grim times, few things are as exhilarating as being the dark horse in a Tory leadership election - provided you are thundering up behind your rivals at breakneck speed.

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In a first ballot, such as that due today, beating expectations can be vital to establishing momentum into a second ballot. One of my own techniques for achieving this in 1997 was to keep a solid core of secret votes in my back-pocket - not even telling my own team about some of the pledges of support I had received from other MPs. They then reacted with surprised delight to the result, to a degree that could not be faked, or leaked in advance.

We will soon see if any dark horse has made it through the pack this time, but whatever happens there is one crucial thought that Britain and the world have to get used to: regardless of who is the next Conservative leader, the UK is leaving the European Union.

It is strange to have to point this out even after the referendum, but it is evidently necessary. At the weekend, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in London against the referendum result. Many more seem to think it will never be implemented. Some think a general election will overturn it. And Tony Blair has implied that if the country changes its mind, Britain can stay in the EU after all.

As one who argued for the Remain side, I hate to disillusion all these people, but there is no point living in a state of denial. On a high turnout, in a democratic society, the electorate voted to Leave.

The idea that the UK can keep having referendums to see if voters have changed their minds is unrealistic, to say the least. They might very well change their minds from month to month, or year to year, as good or bad news comes in. They might be pleased they're leaving the EU in 2017, regret it in 2019 and be thrilled they're doing so by 2021. That doesn't mean we can change our national direction every two years as sentiment ebbs and flows.

Within the Conservative Party, the result of June 23 is accepted as settling the issue, albeit not the considerable question of how to implement it. It is inconceivable that the next leader and prime minister can now lead the party in any other direction than one of carrying out the mandate to leave.

While it is important that the truth of this sinks into the minds of business leaders and senior civil servants, it also has an immediate bearing on how Conservative MPs cast their votes in this week's ballots. For if it is indeed the case that the decision to leave the EU is in practice irreversible, then it follows that the new leader does not have to be chosen on the basis of which side of the campaign they were on.

Making sure we have a prime minister with resilience, experience, electability and sensible ideas becomes more important than which way they voted two weeks ago. The fact that there is no going back means that MPs should lift themselves out of their Remain or Leave silos and get back together to keep the confidence of the country on whose wishes they are committed to act.

This will require rallying behind whichever individual wins the leadership. And it obviously means that a new leader has to include in their Cabinet senior colleagues who were on the opposite side of the referendum campaign in key positions.

Such a Cabinet needs two new powerful Secretary of State positions, one to handle the negotiations with the EU and the other to lead trade talks with the rest of the world and be a full-time champion of exports.

The creation of such a team can only be sealed when the new leader enters No 10 Downing Street, but a new Tory consensus on how the British economy can compete outside the EU can emerge during the leadership election itself.

In the boardrooms of major companies, and at the kitchen tables of small ones, decisions to invest in the UK or to hire more employees are now on hold, awaiting clarity on the country's post-EU plans and prospects. That is why a recession in the coming months is widely predicted.

There is no way of reassuring these companies about continued access to the European single market on the same terms, since that will almost certainly be incompatible with the control of migration that was such a huge issue for British voters. So it is vital that they hear and witness in the Conservative leadership contest the development of other ideas to keep Britain high up the league tables of great countries in which to do business.

George Osborne's statement about reducing corporation tax to less than 15pc is a step in the right direction. Let's go for 12.5pc, the same as the Republic of Ireland. Maintaining infrastructure spending is a vital signal, including deciding rapidly on a new London airport runway - and if it can't now be Heathrow, at least get on and decide to put it at Gatwick.

The EU Working Time Directive could be abolished and replaced with a more flexible alternative. And when it comes to deciding how to regulate financial services, every option should be looked at, not necessarily mirroring EU rules - don't just think Brussels, think Singapore.

Everyone in Britain, including those who voted Remain, now has to make the mental leap to accept what has happened and to work out how to compensate for what we are losing with new national advantages.

The Conservative Party is the only party with both the power and the disposition to lead that leap. By doing so it can unite again intellectually as well as physically. The next prime minister must be someone who can lead that process. Their ability to do so matters far more than being a Remainer or a Leaver, for they are all Leavers now. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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