Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove all officially launched their Conservative party leadership campaigns today. Other leadership hopeful Esther McVey vied for some of the spotlight too, speaking at a think tank event. The only MP advocating for a second referendum Sam Gyimah was forced to drop out by the 5pm deadline, failing to corral enough support among MPs.
Current-front runner Boris Johnson made noise across the Sunday papers yesterday, but in person has otherwise been notably quiet.
Ten MPs have made the cut for the first round of MPs’ voting. That’s Johnson, Raab, Hunt, Gove, Mark Harper, Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid. Esther McVey, Rory Stewart – and Hancock, who was first to host a formal campaign launch, the events at which the media and viewers get the first proper look at the candidates.
Health Secretary Hancock, who voted Remain in 2016, defended his formerly Remainer position and anti-no deal stance. The party needs to deliver Brexit to win back the votes they’ve lost to The Brexit Party, he said, but there is not much future for the Conservatives if they become The Brexit Party.
Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab sat on the other end of the spectrum. Referring to himself as the “conviction Brexiteer with a plan” Raab tried to capture the hard-Brexit wing of the party. However, having lost crucial endorsements from the ERG over the weekend to Boris Johnson, he may have made a miscalculation in offering much the same as Boris, with less of the charm.
Jeremy Hunt had a good day at the office. His bid was formally introduced by Defence Secretary and leaver Penny Mordaunt. The erstwhile Remainer positioned himself as a dealmaker, and has emphasised his entrepreneurial background – the only one with a unique ability to go to Brussels and procure the deal required to get through the muddy and unfavourable parliamentary arithmetic. That endorsement from Mordaunt was crucial to bolster his Brexiteer credentials.
Lastly Michael Gove – who lost out on the Mordaunt endorsement to Hunt – is working through a bit of a PR crisis from over the weekend. Headlines were dominated by Gove’s confession that he took cocaine multiple times over 20 years ago, and his speech today tried to change that narrative.
In a punchy speech – getting personal with Boris – he used the well-worn Theresa May line, that his Brexit would “take back control of our money, or borders and our laws.” And he has essentially backed an unlimited Brexit delay – extending Article 50 by “however long it takes to get a deal over the line.” The approach may be designed to win over the moderate MPs – in lieu of getting votes from the hard-Brexiteers who are looking towards Johnson or Raab. But when it comes to the membership it is unlikely to play well.
What unites them all is the reluctance to go into a general election ahead of delivering Brexit, all aware that it will amount to a surefire electoral mauling. The results of the local elections, European elections, and Peterborough by-election confirmed that the Tories are not – as of now – well placed to fight a general. The Tory voter base is being squeezed by remainers looking to the Liberal Democrats, and leavers who see The Brexit Party as the solution to the mess.
As Hunt pointed out, with the Tories losing votes to the Lib Dems on one side and the Brexit party on the other, they could pave the way for Labour and all but hand the keys to No 10 to Jeremy Corbyn.
Whoever ends up winning the leadership contest is landed in a quagmire. Delivering Brexit is crucial to surviving the next general election, but getting a deal through parliament (who will also try to block no deal) requires a shakeup of the parliamentary arithmetic and a comfortable Tory majority – ie. a general election.
We know the party is broadly split along hard-Brexit vs soft-Brexit lines – and the two MPs who end up on the ballot will likely reflect that. Boris is the front-runner in the hard-Brexit camp, having secured crucial ERG endorsements from over the weekend.
The fight for that second moderate slot on the ballot at this stage appears to largely come down to Jeremy Hunt and a wounded Michael Gove. Both have staked out their ground in the broadly anti-no deal territory. And while Hunt’s former Remainer-status will not do him any favours with the members, the endorsement from a Leave voting cabinet member Mordaunt was a huge boost, entrenching his credentials against Gove.
But the problem facing them both is simple – if Boris makes it to the final ballot it is hard to see how either can beat him. The membership is still largely in favour of no deal – and he has advocated for leaving on 31st October “deal or no deal”. More simply, Boris is the most popular with those who get the final say. People are backing Boris because they believe he can win. And maybe this time, he can.
But if he makes it he will be landed with a party no less divided now than it was under Theresa May, and plenty of its senior ministers and MPs in parliament clustered around Hunt. The EU seems unlikely to offer much scope for renegotiation. Parliament will try to block no deal Brexit at all costs. To deliver Brexit, Boris may yet have to fight a general election in which Labour could emerge as the largest party.