"Ground control to Major Tom: your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong”. — The lyrics to David Bowie’s hit single probably best sum up where the United Kingdom is at the moment — a governing party lost in space, remote from terrestrial reality.
At the beginning of June Prime Minister Theresa May resigned, defeated by the task of getting her deal with the European Union on the UK’s departure through Parliament. Despite her best efforts it was rejected three times, mainly thanks to defections by the Conservative right-wing. In politics there are no prizes for trying hard. After the third defeat her resignation was inevitable. With it, the starting pistol was fired on a leadership contest.
The Conservatives have a two-stage procedure for electing their leader. First, members of Parliament hold a series of exhaustive ballots, successively knocking out the last placed candidate until only two are left. Then party members elect the leader from those two.
The process has so far been absurd. Ten candidates put themselves forward during the first stage, which has just finished. All of them in varying degrees supported the UK’s departure from the EU — Brexit. The only real distinction between them was that some were prepared to leave without a deal on October 31, the departure date, whilst others were prepared to seek a postponement to negotiate a better one.
Two candidates have now emerged — Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. Mr Hunt, the current foreign secretary, says that he would seek to negotiate a better deal with the EU and is prepared to postpone the departure date to do so. His style is dry and managerial.
Boris Johnson is the polar opposite. He has what one might term euphemistically a “colourful past”. His private life is chaotic: two broken marriages, an illegitimate child and last Friday there were reports of a row with his current partner so blazing that it led to the neighbours calling the police. His public life has, to put it politely, been marked by an over-weaning desire to be the centre of attention and only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. Sacked from his first job as a journalist with the London Times for making up quotes, he then made a name for himself as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph on European matters. His stories were motivated more by a desire to play to the readership’s anti-European prejudices than a desire to be accurate. As mayor of London, he seemed more interested in vanity projects than the hard graft of running a city. As a key leader of the campaign to leave the EU he was never shy of gross distortion, frequently citing wholly misleading figures for the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. As foreign secretary he was unwilling or unable to master details and oblivious to foreign sensitivities; a recent example being a visit to Myanmar when the British ambassador had to prevent him from reciting a Kipling poem likely to cause offence. And now as leadership contender, he says he is prepared to leave the EU on October 31 — “deal or no deal”.
It is at this point that the leadership election becomes grotesque. Tory Party members will have until July 21 to cast their votes. They will not only be electing a party leader but also a Prime Minister. The UK is — supposedly — a parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister is the leader who can command a majority in the House of Commons. Yet the choice is to be handed over to the membership of one political party; and a membership that is wholly unrepresentative. It numbers only 160,000 people across the UK; it is three-quarters male; its average age is 57; and it is extreme. Recent surveys suggest that it prizes Brexit above all else. It is apparently more important than economic prosperity, the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland and — ironically — the survival of the Conservative Party. Or perhaps not so ironically, since it is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of the membership voted for the extreme Brexit Party in the recent European Parliament elections. And it is a membership which prefers Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, on planet earth, certain facts cannot be ignored.
The Conservatives are divided and fractious. Although Boris Johnson was the clear victor during the first stage, only 51 per cent of Tory MPs voted for him. What is more, that group is disparate. It comprises MPs with opposing views — hard Brexiters, soft Brexiters, social liberals, social conservatives, free market purists and economic pragmatists. The only glue which holds them together is fear. They are terrified of the Brexit Party, which took over half the Conservative vote in the European Parliament elections, and the possibility of a Labour government. They believe that Boris Johnson’s larger than life personality will help them keep their seats. But their mood could turn nasty once his image tarnishes.
There is no majority in Parliament for a no-deal Brexit. The Conservative Party has a working majority of only three. Amongst the 49 per cent of Conservative MPs who did not vote for Boris Johnson are more than enough who are willing to overturn that majority if he pursues a no-deal Brexit. Some have even said they are prepared to vote with Labour MPs to bring down the government and precipitate a general election.
But the most intractable fact is the EU. It has made it abundantly clear on frequent occasions that it will not reopen the deal negotiated with Prime Minister May. There is absolutely no reason to think it is bluffing. The EU also is losing patience. The departure date has already been postponed twice. Reports suggest that the EU will only be prepared to postpone it a third time if there is either a general election or a second referendum. Whoever becomes Prime Minister then is cornered. Move to no-deal and the government falls. Try to renegotiate the deal and be rebuffed by the EU. Seek to pass the existing deal and fail again.
So, as the Conservative Party capsule hurtles back from outer space to earth, it’s in for a very nasty crash landing....