Sharks circle Theresa May as crucial Brexit vote looms

Conservative party rivals jockey for position as the British PM is seen to be entering the final stage of her stay in office

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, uses a microphone  during the ceremony of switching on the lights of the Christmas tree in Downing Street, in central London, Britain December 6, 2018.  REUTERS/ Toby Melville
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With practically all British political opinion in accord that prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement will fail to pass a vote in the House of Commons next week, machinations in her Conservative party are gearing up about who will lead them after her apparently inevitable departure.

As ever, the name of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is on everyone’s lips, with a recent survey by the Conservative Home website – seen as the house journal of the party – confirming his status as the most popular putative leader among party activists with 24% of support from the 1,472 respondents to the monthly poll.

And in an interview granted to the website on Friday, it’s quite clear that Mr Johnson is sketching out his platform for a leadership bid. He unequivocally trashed Mrs May’s deal, while urging that she put it to a vote in the House of Commons, hopeful perhaps of forcing a crisis that he could benefit from.


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And he accepted that a hard Brexit could be painful in the short-term, but that Britain had enough resolve to tackle any problems thrown at it.

“I don’t want to pretend to the public there would be no disruption at all. I don’t want to pretend there would be no challenges at all. But what people I think want to see is a bit of gumption from this country and a bit of willingness to tackle those problems, and a bit of leadership. And I think people are fed up of being told their country can’t do something and we’re all incapable of sorting out these logistical problems.”

Second in the Conservative Home poll was home secretary Sajid Javid, although his 12% of support was down from the previous month by 7% as he is viewed by the hardline party membership as being soft on Brexit. To this end, he is said to have enrolled Andrea Leadsom, leader of the house and from the right of the party, as part of a dream ticket that could unite the party.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is also being spoken of as a possible leader. A supporter of Remain before the referendum in 2016, he forged a unique position by subsequently saying that he would vote leave if he had the chance again. A tenacious character, Mr Hunt survived as health secretary, a position with curious resonance in the UK, for almost six years despite widespread opposition within the National Health Service.

Mr Hunt is rumoured to be preparing a bid with Michael Gove as his number two, with the environment secretary providing Brexit ballast for his colleague. Their cabinet colleague Liz Truss was overheard this week saying that she thought Mr Hunt or Mr Javid would get the job, but was scathing about Mr Gove, saying that “everybody hates” him.

Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, is also seen to be on manoeuvres. Earlier this week it was noted that Ms Mordaunt had started following lots of Conservative party associations and politicians on Twitter, which was interpreted as a predatory move.

While the timetable for a contest is unknowable, it’s likely that events will take a fast turn after Tuesday when the withdrawal bill is voted on in the House of Commons. At a cabinet meeting on Thursday it was mooted that if the scale of debate is kept under 200 MPs, then the prime minister would attempt to carry on.

Although this might be an example of crisis management, with more than 300 opposition MPs committed to voting against, and with upwards of 100 Conservatives – of both Remain and Leave hues – having publicly stated their opposition to Mrs May’s deal, it’s quite possible that the prime minister could be forced out of office within weeks.

This explains the feverish nature of plotting taking place in Westminster. However, the Conservative party will be well aware of the risks of engaging in another leadership election. Mrs May was elevated to her position by default in 2016, after David Cameron resigned following the Brexit vote. There was no campaign as all her rivals wilted away in the face of her overwhelming popularity.

Barring an extension of Article 50, the date for leaving the European Union is just over three months away, meaning there is no time for the party to engage in a proper leadership contest. The likelihood is that a fumbled election for a figure incapable of unifying the Conservatives will just lead to more pain for the party and the nation.