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Boris will be the next prime minister. Then what?

June 15th, 2019

Airy assertions and motivational phrases do not deliver deals or organise governments

The landslide victory for Boris in the first round of the Tory leadership contest comes close by itself to assuring him of the outright win. Even at the 1/5 odds currently widely quoted, he’s still value.

Put simply, the main question is whether he’ll cruise over the line or stumble over it. His safety-first approach may well tend towards the latter outcome for lack of energy and momentum but either way, he still gains the crown.

Why? Numbers. Boris already has enough in the bag to see him through to the run-off. True, the election isn’t conducted by AV and he could lose MPs between the rounds, either for tactical reasons or because they genuinely become disillusioned with him but even if some do flake off, it’s highly unlikely to make much difference.

For one thing, other votes will continually be freed up – 50 MPs alone go into Tuesday’s vote having backed someone this week who’s now withdrawn or been eliminated – and transfers from these will mask any slippage.

Crucially, the dynamics also now work strongly for Boris. It’s very hard to see how Raab can do any better than fourth, given that the majority of votes that will be freed up before the round-of-four will come from ex-Remain MPs. If so, that means that Boris goes into the round-of-three with a huge proportion of the Leave MPs on his side, plus plenty of Remainers too, against two candidates from Gove, Hunt, Javid and Stewart.

If the Leave vote was split between Boris and Raab, against, say, Hunt, Boris’s lead among MPs might look a lot more slender. As it is, he will remain way out in front as the “MP’s choice”.

There is a risk that Boris might lose the vote among the members but it’s essentially the risk of him doing something so stupid that he kills his own campaign. Boris and his team are clearly aware of this risk and so I expect him to continue to err on the side of dullness for now. Providing he avoids potholes, I don’t see how any rival who might make the run-off beats him, especially as most postal votes are likely to be returned in the first week or so of the election.

However, winning the leadership election will be the easy part. Boris will inherit an appalling state of affairs, in policy, in parliament and in his party.

In policy, everything beyond Brexit has ground to a halt, allowing Labour to make great strides in setting the terms of debate on spending, tax, austerity, social policy, crime and so on. Witness the extent to which Tory candidates are falling over themselves to ignore, and implicitly reject, the need for sound public finances – something which will have long-lasting political effects as it becomes extremely hard for Tories to defend the austerity programme having just undermined the rationale for it, and hence becomes very easy for Labour to claim that the cuts were ‘ideological’.

On Brexit, Boris will have left himself no room for manoeuvre, having gained his victory off ERG votes on a pledge to leave on October 31 come what may. He will have to deliver on this, all the more so as he will have to repeat these pledges to the Tory Party conference at the beginning of October, to the activists who voted for him for that very reason and who are deeply spooked by their party lying in fourth place in some polls with a deficit of up to 9% against Farage’s Brexit Party. That it’s only YouGov polls that have the Tories in fourth – no other firm’s found them behind the Lib Dems – is a detail few notice when you’re panicking and with YouGov publishing most frequently.

In all probability, that means there’d be no room to compromise with with the EU anyway but it looks as if the EU is once again going to overplay their hand on the assumption that the UK will fold or at least kick the can again – an assumption that would certainly be wrong from the point of view of the government.

Would it be wrong from the point of view of parliament? That’s harder to say and for that very reason, forms another frame of Boris’ cage. There can be no doubt that parliament is very heavily set against No Deal but it may find it hard to express that opposition.

The Commons, having rejected this week the chance to repeat the process that forced the first extension in March, may have thrown away its best chance to force the government’s hand. Passing legislation in opposition to the government is extremely difficult, requiring both control of the agenda and majorities in the House that shouldn’t normally be there. Even then, the Bill might not be drawn up tightly enough (May wasn’t forced to accept the offer the EU put to her, for example).

However, if lesser options aren’t available, greater ones might be. If a Vote of No Confidence was the only means of stopping No Deal, Labour MPs, including the likes of Kate Hoey (who on Brexit votes have been fairly reliable for the government), would be down-the-line against Boris and co. Possibly the government might survive off DUP votes and some independents but none are to be relied on. Yes, they might be turkeys voting for Christmas but on an issue of this magnitude, politicians who feel strongly enough to leave their parties might well be prepared to sacrifice their careers too.

Winning the Tory leadership on an explicit pledge of No-Deal-if-Needed is bad politics on just about every level other than the briefest of timeframes. It would be to win not a gold medal but an enriched uranium one. The easy option would be to argue that Boris’s weakness for ephemeral moments of adulation, applause and self-amusement mean it will happen anyway but this wouldn’t be quite right. Boris will be chosen not despite that but because of it. He may be cynically playing to the gallery but if he is, it’s because they want to be played. Electing him will be a deeply irresponsible decision but one that is symptomatic of a current mindset that wishes away problems and indulges in fantasies and delusions; a mindset unfit for a great party and one which if not addressed will cause not only the party damage that could last decades but the country too.

David Herdson