Top 3 developments
- Boris Johnson secures 114 votes in the first round of MP votes
- Hard Brexit proponents Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom eliminated
- Gove campaign hit by historic cocaine use
Six and the City
Following the first round of MP votes, just six candidates remain in the bid to become the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister. In a secret ballot on Thursday, all 313 Conservative MPs voted for their choice of PM. Under new rules created by the 1922 Committee, all candidates who received fewer than 17 votes were eliminated, in addition to the lowest scoring candidate. Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper and Esther McVey failed to make this threshold, receiving 11, 10 and 9 votes respectively, and were therefore eliminated from the contest. It was announced this morning that Matt Hancock had also pulled out from the race, as it seems clear to him that finding an extra 13 votes was just too unlikely. He has not declared who he is throwing his support (and his 20 votes) behind yet.
Boris Johnson received a highly impressive 114 votes, and he is officially the man to beat in this contest. Jeremy Hunt came second with 43 votes and now has some momentum behind him to be the candidate to take on Boris in the final two. Brexiteers Gove and Raab were slightly behind with 37 and 27 votes. But perhaps the most surprising result from this ballot was Rory Stewart, who despite having just 6 public backers, received 19 votes in the first round. While unlikely to make it too much further, it does show that his warnings about a no-deal Brexit and his appeal to centrism is attractive to some Tory MPs. His campaign is an example of how a strong leadership campaign can successfully raise your profile with the electorate. Expect a plush Cabinet position to go his way to when this is all over.
The next round of votes is on 18th June, where candidates will need at least 33 votes to remain in the contest. Raab, Sajid Javid, and Stewart are all in the danger zone, and will need to secure more votes either from other candidates or from those recently eliminated to ensure they survive this round. There is a planned television debate on the 16th June, so this will be the best chance these candidates have to gain support and to make it through to the next round.
Gove steps over the (white) line
Campaigns always end up being bloody, and this leadership campaign is no exception after revelations emerged that Michael Gove had taken cocaine when he was a journalist for The Times over twenty years ago. The news dominated headlines over the weekend, and instead of discussing the vast array of crucial policy issues facing the UK, all leadership candidates were relentlessly grilled by the media about their historic drug use.
There has been a lot of debate about how this will affect Gove’s chances of winning. There are essentially two trains of thought. The first is that people shouldn’t be judged on their past mistakes, and as long as Gove recognises his mistakes and learns from them, then it shouldn’t be a factor in this decision. The second is that there is a rank hypocrisy about a man who as Justice Secretary was responsible for helping put drug users in jail, is someone who has been a drug user himself. Considering Conservative members are generally socially conservative – which by trait means taking a hard line view of drug consumption – it will be interesting to see how this will affect Gove’s chances, assuming he makes it to the final two candidates.
Following the first round of voting by MPs, it is evident that this revelation has wounded Gove’s campaign, but hasn’t proved fatal. But there are still reasons why Gove can be optimistic. He secured the third highest number of votes, and the second highest number of votes for a Brexiteer, which is important. Also, there have been plenty of leaders who have admitted to past demeanours and have gone onto win – most prominently Barack Obama, who also admitted to past cocaine use.
But perhaps the most surprising thing to come from all of this is that Boris Johnson has publicly admitted that he has also used cocaine, but this hasn’t been seen to be of any particular relevance. Johnson seems to have a Trump-like invincibility where nothing controversial seems to stick to him – whether that be marriage infidelity, drug use or proven deceit. This will strike fear into his competitors, as with 114 MP votes the only way Boris doesn’t make the final two is if a major scandal capsizes his campaign. The other candidates will know better than anyone that this is highly unlikely, and that Johnson will be almost impossible to beat.
Can Johnson be beaten?
With 114 out of 313 MP votes, Boris Johnson is by far and away the frontrunner in this contest, having more votes than his next three competitors put together. Considering an MP needs 157 votes to have a 100% chance to get to the final two, Johnson is just 43 votes from securing this. What is more, Johnson will probably pick up more votes from recently eliminated Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey, who collectively possess 20 votes. Considering Johnson is easily the most popular candidate amongst the Conservative membership, it seems the only way that Johnson won’t become PM is if he doesn’t make it to the final two candidates. So, it is worth asking the question, can he be beaten?
The first way in which this could theoretically happen is if some unforeseen scandal erupts and wrecks his campaign, which would either force him to withdraw or lose enough MP votes to make him irrelevant. However, this is unlikely, so the only other way to count him out of the race is for two competitors to end up with more votes than him. His two closest competitors are Jeremy Hunt (43 votes) and Michael Gove (37 votes). Collectively all three have 194 votes out of the 313 available, which means that there are 119 votes still up for grabs. Assuming that Johnson does not lose any votes already declared for him, there is no way that Hunt and Gove could both end up with more votes than 114.
The only thing standing in Johnson’s way is the potential for a huge gaffe, so expect his public appearances to be kept to a minimum and his campaign to be as boring as possible. This is the reason why there is strong resistance from the Johnson camp from taking part in the leadership debate on the 16th June, as this will be dangerous for Boris because he will be taunted and lured by all the other candidates into saying something he regrets. For the first time in his career, being boring is the key to Boris getting the keys to Number 10.
[Never] Be Prepared
A confidential paper on how prepared the Government is for a no-deal Brexit was leaked to the Financial Times this week. According to the paper, which was drafted for a Cabinet meeting last month, the UK Government is more than six months away from being properly prepared to leave the European Union without a deal.
The report warns that the Government needs between six and eight months to “ensure adequate arrangements are in place for stockpiling medicines” and a minimum of five months to ensure that companies are ready to comply with the border checks that would be required if there is no transition period. Additionally, whilst the Government has delivered 85% of the core no-deal plans, the reports state that these preparations provide only a “minimum viable level of capability”. With lack of preparedness from the Government highlighted in this report and limited time until the current departure date (31st October), fears of a no deal Brexit are escalating both within Parliament and with the public.
The report also undermines the UK’s ability to use a no-deal Brexit as a bargaining tool when negotiating with the EU27 leaders. This is because the EU27 leaders are more prepared for a no-deal scenario than the UK, meaning that a no deal could negatively affect the UK to a greater extent the rest of Europe. The threat of a no-deal was used by Theresa May as an attempt to gain further concessions to the Withdrawal Agreement. However, the new Conservative leader, whoever they may be, will be extremely limited in their negotiating tactics as the EU27 have remained firm that the Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation and that the threat of a no deal is greater for the UK than Europe.
Parliament Rejects Rejecting a No Deal
As the likelihood of a Brexiteer candidate succeeding Theresa May has significantly increased, so too has the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. A motion was put forward to Parliament for MPs to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda, again, for a day. If this motion passed, then MPs would have been asked to vote on legislation that would make it illegal for a future Prime Minister to end a parliamentary session and push through a no-deal Brexit without Parliament’s consent.
The motion appears to have been a targeted objection to the possibility of the new Prime Minister suspending Parliament to prevent it blocking a n-deal Brexit. Parliamentary control of the agenda was meant to put measures in place to stop this extremely hypothetical scenario from becoming a reality. However, the motion was defeated by 309 votes to 298, with 10 Tory MPs rebelling against their whip, 8 Labour MPs voting against their party and 13 MPs abstaining.
There is the potential that Labour may try to get this motion through Parliament again, once May’s successor is confirmed and Parliament is able to decipher how great the threat of a no deal is. A motion at a later date may be able to secure wider support from Parliament, including greater support from Tory MPs. This is because MPs are so opposed to a no-deal that they might sacrifice their own party to prevent this option from becoming to reality. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney-general, followed this line of thought declared that he would be willing to back a vote of confidence in his own side rather than allow a no deal Brexit. The extent to which a no deal is opposed by both the UK Parliament and the public suggests that the new Conservative leader would be foolish to pursue such a strategy without Parliament’s approval, severely affecting the Conservative Party’s chances for the next General Election.
EU are the Weakest Link
The European Commission have released several negative statements over the Brexit negotiations as the leadership contest officially began in the UK this week. The European Commission warned that Britain’s chances of crashing out of the EU amid economic chaos were “very much possible” because of the Conservative Party leadership race and the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he does not like “what is happening” in the race to succeed Theresa May.
The EU27 are observing this contest and commenting on the feasibility of what the contenders are promising to the public in relation to Brexit negotiations. The EU has repeatedly insisted that it will not renegotiate the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement, regardless of the new Conservative leader as Juncker has outlined that it “is not a treaty between Theresa May and Juncker” but rather between the UK and EU. He further belittled the leadership contest by declaring that “I have [had] the impression for months now that the main interest for the British political society was how to replace Theresa May and not to find agreement with the European Union”. This statement seems to imply that any of the promises that the contenders promise the UK public and Parliament in terms of negotiating the Brexit agreement are pointless and will not be agreed by the EU27, the respective party in the negotiations. Therefore, from the EU’s point of view, the leadership contest is doing little more than providing a temporary distraction to the Brexit deadlock within the UK.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 16th June: First leadership debate
- 18th June: Second round of MP voting for next Conservative leader
- 23rd June: Three year anniversary of Referendum.
- 30th June: Brexit review if the UK is still a member of the EU.
- 23rd July: Leader of Conservative Party is elected.
- 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline.
*If you would like to receive these updates when they are sent, please contact Michaela@political-intelligence.com