As EU leaders gathered in Brussels yesterday evening for the last summit with David Cameron as Prime Minister, there was growing acceptance that it would take time to sort out the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the rest of the Union. Despite exasperated criticism from some including Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that although she was opposed to any deal which allowed UK access to the single market without free movement of people, there was no need to rush into a decision.
The new faultline in Tory politics
This is just as well as there is still considerable confusion in the Leave camp about their intentions. Boris Johnson implied on Monday in the Daily Telegraph that access to the single market would be more important than controls on immigration, but yesterday his supporters said that this had been a mistake and Johnson was tired when he had written the article. He remains, according to his supporters, committed to the UK having the right to impose restrictions on EU immigration.
However, underlining the difficulties involved in securing that outcome, Chancellor George Osborne used a speech yesterday at The Times CEO summit to warn that Britain may still have to pay into the EU budget and continue to allow unlimited immigration from the EU as the price for access to the single market. This tension could be the new faultline in the Tory party.
An early election becomes less likely
While some reports in recent days have suggested that the Tories may capitalise on Labour’s disarray by calling an early election after the leadership contest is settled, that speculation is being dampened. Boris Johnson’s supporters have briefed overnight that he does not believe a general election would be necessary for him to negotiate Brexit. Stephen Crabb, another candidate for leader, has also let it be known he does not favour a snap election.
These reassurances may be designed to steady the nerves of Conservative MPs concerned about having to fight an election so soon after the last one. However they may also be an indication of how the Leave vote has taken Westminster by surprise, with Tory leadership hopefuls unprepared for the contest and lacking the programme to furnish an election manifesto. Johnson himself is said to have been preparing for a leadership fight in 2018, not 2016.
Alternatives to Boris emerge
The other leading contender, Home Secretary Theresa May, has yet to set out her platform but will do so in a speech tomorrow. Johnson is seen as being ahead at the moment because he has succeeded in attracting support across the Tory divide, including some prominent Remainers such as Defra Secretary Liz Truss and Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames. The expected appoint of Michael Gove as chief EU negotiator under a Boris premiership will also go some way assuaging the concerns of wavering Tory MPs.
Although Johnson and May appear well ahead, others want to use the process to make broader political points and boost their own credentials as future leaders. Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb has confirmed his candidature, supported by Business Secretary Sajid Javid. The two are among the few senior Conservatives from poorer backgrounds and are arguing that the Tory party needs to reach out beyond its traditional base. Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is also expected to declare while Treasury minister and fellow Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom has also been touted as a possible candidate. In addition, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he is ‘seriously considering’ standing.
The Tory timetable
The Conservative Party Board yesterday confirmed that the new Leader would be in place by September 9th at the latest. It could be sooner if there are a smaller number of candidates or the losers are eliminated more quickly. The two immediate issues will then be whether to call a general election to secure a mandate for negotiations with the EU and when to formally invoke Article 50.
Labour’s fight to survive
One consideration on whether to call an election will be the state of the Labour Party. Last night, Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed a motion of no confidence in party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although he is refusing to accept the decision and resign, a leadership election seems unavoidable and it is expected that the challenge will be formally made after PMQs today.
The battle will then be whether Corbyn will automatically be shortlisted on the ballot or whether he will need to secure nominations from MPs and MEPs to allow his candidature to go forward. That decision will fall to the Labour NEC, which is likely to meet tomorrow. That will be the critical decision.
If they rule that Corbyn has to secure nominations, one of two thresholds will apply: 15% (38 MPs/MEPs) where there is ‘a vacancy’ or 20% (51 MPs/MEPs) where there is ‘no vacancy’. That latter threshold currently applies. With the resignation overnight of Liz McInnes, an MP who backed him in the confidence vote, and Pat Glass who only accepted a shadow cabinet position on Monday, as well as suggestions that his support among MEPs is weaker than thought, he may struggle to reach it.
Who will be the challenger?
If he is a candidate, the anti-Corbyn majority is expected to want a single candidate to oppose him with most suggesting former shadow Business secretary Angela Eagle. From the party’s so-called soft left, she is seen as pragmatic and inclusive. If there is to be a Leadership election, it would likely be held over the summer with an announcement of the new Leader around the same time as the Tories announce theirs.
All parties now face a Brexit challenge
For both parties, determining a Brexit strategy is politically, legally and constitutionally fraught. The House of Commons has a strong, pro-EU majority, the House of Lords even more so.
Parliament will want to exercise a strong influence on the strategic direction of the government and may insist on the right of parliament to decide, for example, on the timing of invoking Article 50. Some constitutional lawyers have even argued that primary legislation will be needed to invoke the Article. Parliament is also likely to be much more pro-access to the single market even at the cost of a more liberal approach to freedom of movement.
The difficulties of reconciling a popular vote against free movement with a parliamentary majority committed to access to the single market is why whoever succeeds David Cameron may decide that a clear mandate from a general election is unavoidable. That positioning and how robust it is will be one of the main tests of the credibility of the leading candidates over the next few days.
By Lexington Communications