Thursday 19 September 2019

John Rentoul: 'New Tory candidates emerge - but Boris leads pack'

Michael Gove has joined the race - but all roads towards Brexit will eventually be blocked off

BORIS JOHNSON: The bookies' favourite
BORIS JOHNSON: The bookies' favourite

John Rentoul

In the race for the leadership of the British Tory party, Michael Gove last night claimed that he was the best candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn, talking up his own role in the Leave campaign and claiming he will seize control of the machinery of government to "deliver Brexit".

Gove, currently environment secretary in the UK, has told MPs that he is a "unity" candidate with the "vision" and proven "grip" over government departments that will enable him to secure the UK's departure from the UK and reverse the Tory decline in the polls.

Supporters expect Gove to publicly announce his candidacy this evening. The Tory grandee told a private dinner of MPs last week that while Boris Johnson was the main face of the Vote Leave campaign, he was entrusted with some of the highest pressure TV debates. His pitch also focused on how he had run three government departments since the Tories came to power in 2010, contrasting his experience with that of other candidates.

RORY STEWART: 'There may be times when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio.'
RORY STEWART: 'There may be times when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio.'

Boris Johnson - whose 2016 leadership campaign ended when Gove quit as his campaign manager to launch his own bid - was a much lampooned UK foreign secretary for two years, while Dominic Raab, served as Brexit secretary for four months.

Gove would become the fourth UK cabinet minister to announce a bid to succeed Theresa May when she steps down as Tory leader on June 7. There have been similar declarations by Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart, and Matt Hancock.

In other developments in the Tory race, Liz Truss, the chief secretary of the treasury, has ruled herself out of the contest. Elsewhere Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary said she would lead a "clean break" Brexit on October 31, unless the EU approaches the UK the "to make a better offer" - a pledge likely to pile pressure on Johnson and Gove amid a battle for support from Brexiteer Tories.

Truss and McVey, together with Priti Patel and Graham Brady, who are both now considering standing, have all warned that the Conservatives will be destroyed if the next leader fails to take the UK out of the EU by the end of October, the latest date agreed with the EU.

It has also emerged that tens of thousands of new members have joined the Conservatives in the last year, swelling the electorate that will choose Theresa May's successor to 160,000.

Several leading Tories have already backed away from Boris Johnson's leadership bid. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, who has hinted she could back Johnson, yesterday refused - three times - to describe him as "an honest politician".

"I would be very concerned about somebody who is too enthusiastic about no deal," she warned, while ruling herself out of the race.

And Rory Stewart, a rival for the top job, yesterday dramatically ruled out serving under Boris Johnson because he wasn't ready to carry out a "damaging, unnecessary and dishonest" no-deal Brexit.

In a barb clearly aimed at the former foreign secretary, Stewart tweeted: "The star name will not always be the best choice. There may be times when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio."

Stewart may be correct. Boris Johnson began his leadership campaign by making a promise. "We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal," he said on Friday. He had to say it, because no candidate can expect to win the Tory leadership election without such a pledge.

However Johnson would probably be removed from office before he could do a no-deal Brexit.

It is a question of numbers.The Conservatives with the DUP have a majority in the UK House of Commons of five (assuming Peterborough stays in opposition hands after the by-election the week after next). There are three Labour or former Labour MPs who support a no-deal exit: Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins and Graham Stringer.

That means it would take only six Conservative MPs to deprive Johnson of his majority. And there are many more than six Tory MPs who think a no-deal exit would be so damaging they are prepared to "put country before party".

This is what was yesterday predicted by UK shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

As he announced Theresa May's successor would face an immediate vote of no-confidence, McDonnell said there could be a majority for either a general election, or a 'final say' referendum.

"We will be talking to the other political parties," Mr McDonnell said. Asked if that included Tory backbenchers, he replied: "Yes."

"This isn't a matter of asking people to be disloyal to their beliefs or their party," he told the BBC. "We're now possibly faced with an extremist leader of the Conservative Party coming in, willing to take us over the edge of a no-deal.

"Faced with that situation, I think there may well be a majority in the House of Commons to bring about some form of public vote - and that could include a general election."

But not necessarily. If he did become prime minister, and if he did intend to allow the UK's membership of the EU to expire on 31 October without a deal, Johnson could be removed by six or more Tories voting with Jeremy Corbyn on a motion of no confidence. This could be accepable to moderate Tories, as it would not lead straight away to a general election. Under the UK's fixed-term parliaments act, the House of Commons would have 14 days to pass a motion of confidence in an alternative government, led by another wannabe PM.

But whoever wins will find themselves on the same treadmill of unrealistic promises as Theresa May. They will try and fail to renegotiate the deal. The DUP will remain opposed. The Tory party will become increasingly wedded to an outcome that cannot be delivered. They won't call a general election, because Tory MPs, fearful of losing their seats, won't let that happen. In the end, they may be driven to a referendum.

It seems all roads ahead are blocked - not just for Johnson, but for any other possible Tory prime minister.

The Backstop has brought down May - and will bring about a no-deal Brexit Dan O'Brien, page 24 ©Independent

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