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The issue of Europe will kill off the next prime minister too, just like every Tory leader before them

 If the Tories end up losing badly to Labour in a general election, then prime minister Boris Johnson would have to quit – a brief, spectacular, futile adventure that will bequeath a wonderful memoir, but not much else

Sean O'Grady
Friday 17 May 2019 16:10 BST
Boris Johnson says that the Brexit process has become satirical

Like Dettol used to kill off all known germs, Europe has a habit of killing off all known Conservative Party leaders. Theresa May is only the latest in a long and pitiful line of failures, unable to lead a party when it no longer wants to be led. There is a no reason to believe that her successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, will have any more luck than May did (or Cameron, Hague, Major, Thatcher...). Quite the opposite.

To use one of her more baleful catchphrases, when the new leader is selected and takes their commission to form a government from the Queen it will soon be apparent that “nothing has changed”. Style, yes; substance, no.

If the Tories choose a hard Brexiteer – any of Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom – they still won’t be able to get such a hard Brexit on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms through the House of Commons, even if they reconstruct the administration with a hard Brexit cabinet and sack the likes of Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clark.

They will have the ERG on side, possibly not the DUP, but many Tory MPs who simply cannot vote for such an act of economic and political self-harm will rebel once again. The “Bozzerites” in the Commons and in the country have to face that fact, even if Nigel Farage will be applauding and showing a bit of leg for an electoral pact. Nor will the EU willingly give them what they think they can just demand on the Irish border and other issues. Johnson might try to force the EU to force the UK out of the EU, by making it more difficult to grant further extensions – but that would more likely mean that the house would just vote to revoke Article 50, as Ken Clarke (the leader they should have had all along) wisely advises.

Boris, of course, would then have inadvertently delivered Remain. Stranger things have happened to him.

Another solution to the parliamentary impasse is to hold a general election, with every likelihood of another hung parliament and the whole pantomime starting up again. If the Tories end up losing badly to Labour, then prime minister Boris Johnson would have to quit – the shortest tenure in No 10 in modern history. A brief, spectacular, but ultimately futile adventure that will bequeath a wonderful memoir but not much else. Europe will have claimed a fresh victim.

How about a soft Brexiteer – someone who can “do something” with May’s deal? Improve it; refine it; use clever stratagems to get it through the Commons? Maybe Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid or Amber Rudd have the necessary skills? Or maybe, as is the truth, the logic and parliamentary realities will soon overwhelm them too.

Now, no Tory leadership contender is going to openly advocate Remain. Of course not. But maybe one or two of them might face up to reality and state the obvious – that the only way through Brexit is to put the issue to the people.

Thus far only Rory Stewart – an attractively open, articulate and fresh-faced contender, a kind of reborn Tony Blair for the Tories – has even hinted that the facts of the situation may mean that such an outcome is inevitable. If he, or someone like him, could guide his party, the Commons and the country through such a course he will have done everyone a huge service.

The snag, of course, is that the Conservative grassroots would never accept such a candidate because they would, given the chance, prefer to have Nigel Farage leading the party than any of the long list of names currently being canvassed – perhaps even including Boris. Which leaves the overwhelming probability that the next Tory leader and prime minister will, just like May, fail to make sense of the inherent contradictions of Brexit.

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In which case, then, Boris or Sajid or Amber or Jeremy will join a monumental Conservative funeral pyre constructed over more than half a century. In summary, it comprises: Theresa May – pushed out by her backbenchers on Europe by the summer of 2019; David Cameron – lost the European referendum of 2016; William Hague – lost 2001 election partly due to splits over policy on the euro; John Major – administration wrecked by Maastricht divisions and the “bastards”, crushed by Blair in 1997; Margaret Thatcher – in 1990, partly because of splits on joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and her militant Euroscepticism; Ted Heath – who lost the 1974 election after Enoch Powell, former Tory, advised people to vote Labour because they were offering a European referendum; and Harold Macmillan – the whole purpose of his government’s economic and foreign policy destroyed after president De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s first application to join Europe, in 1963.

It is, as a sort of compensation, a very distinguished club but the fee for joining is ruinously high – for you, your party and the country.

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