The new Conservative leader has the tough task of not only uniting the European Parliament, but the Kingdom and the Conservative Party. For Leavers, the elation of the result has dimmed. UK is in turmoil without the dream team of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove that was promised.
“Always expect the unexpected” is what happened on the morning when Michael Gove double-crossed Boris Johnson by presenting himself as a leadership candidate. Overnight, he concluded Johnson could not provide the leadership for the Prime Ministerial task ahead. Previously, Gove, the darling of the intelligentsia, had denied leadership ambitions, saying he lacked the qualities and disposition (rhinoceros hide) required. It is believed that George Osborne helped him re-evaluate his stand. Gove’s wife, journalist Sarah Vine, “accidentally” leaked an email to a “random” member of the public, casting doubts over Johnson’s popularity. The email talks of obstacles to be overcome and specific assurances needed from Boris. This email clearly prepared the ground for the following day’s political omnishambles. Broadcaster Michael Crick claimed on Twitter that a Tory Brexit MP source confided, “Osborne, Hancock, Gove and Special Adviser (Henry) Newman met until late last night (29 June). Osborne (is) behind the stabbing.”
Gove looks like he is for change in more than one respect, calling for “a bold break with the past”. It was not explained if this referred to the EU, David Cameron, Johnson or what. Gove’s previous radical reforms in the education sector were unpopular at the grassroots, but not at a ministerial level. Stanley Johnson, Boris’ father, has said, “I think Mr Gove is the strongest candidate now.”
Boris Johnson’s self-elimination speech was a bombshell. Evidently, the “Stop Boris” campaign was successful. This reporter heard rumours on Wednesday that Johnson’s voice may be stronger outside of No 10 as a counterbalancing influence. Some claimed his Leave campaign was a presumptive PM campaign. YouGov polls showed him lagging behind Theresa May, the Home Secretary. Johnson was accused of going soft on immigration after the result, preferring to focus on the single market. He has assured the next Conservative administration of his support to make sure the mandate of the referendum is fulfilled. But there is no doubt that his powerful charisma and oratory will keep any new PM on edge.
The favourite now falls to Theresa May, the no-nonsense Home Secretary who was known as the “Reluctant Remainer”—a vicar’s daughter who made her pitch wearing her lucky black watch tartan jacket. May said “Brexit means Brexit”, there would be no second referendum and no re-entering the EU through the back door. Her exit strategy would be planned by a new department headed by a Vote Leave minister. Her priority was to “allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services but also, to regain more control of the numbers of people who are coming here from Europe”. She said she would quit the proposal to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights and was prepared to discard Osborne’s target of achieving budget surplus if necessary to avoid tax rises. She concluded with a convincing “My pitch is very simple. I’m Theresa May and I think I’m the best person to be Prime Minister of this country.” At the time of going to press, Mrs May had an impressive lead of 87 MP names of support declared. Certainly her long and relevant experience would enable her to hit the ground running.
But this is not yet a two-horse race. MPs Stephen Crabb, Dr Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom have all thrown their ambitions into the ring. It is now up to the 1922 Committee to whittle the candidates down to a choice of two. Parliament will be in summer recess until 5 September and the 1922 committee Party Board has recommended the date of the declaration of the leader be pushed back to 9 September.
This week, Nigel Farage rubbed the European Parliament’s nose in the Brexit result with his “I told you so speech” on 28 June. He is still an MEP and looking for relevance in Brexit negotiations to avoid being a one trick pony, just as UKIP was a single issue party. He has said that it would be inconceivable if the next Prime Minister came from the Remain camp.
Meanwhile, on the opposite benches, the civil war within the Labour party rages on. Jeremy Corbyn was only half-heartedly for Remain and many Labour MPs were not fully committed to Remaining as they feared not being re-elected by their Leaver constituents. Although half his shadow cabinet have deserted him and David Cameron, Ed Miliband, his own deputy party leader Tom Watson and 150 Labour Councils have asked him to stand down, Corbyn is for remaining in the leadership. He is supported by a groundswell of Labour membership known as Corbynistas. To make matters worse, at the launch of the “Chakrabarti Inquiry” into anti-Semitism on Thursday, Corbyn was understood to mention Israel in the same sentence as “various self-styled Islamic states and organisations”. This has caused a controversial offence. Up to ten Labour MPs have been threatened with sexual or physical violence and even death since they withdrew their support. So far, no leadership bid has been called, but many wait in the wings. Angela Eagle is expected to lead the challenge.