The voting process by Conservative MPs to produce the two candidates to become the next UK Prime Minister has been completed. Ballot papers for ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will be sent to Conservative party members in early August, and it is their verdict which will determine the winner. By early September he/she will be in post as PM and the country – and the EU – will discover what happens next, writes Philip Bushill-Matthews.
As a mere member of the public I have no say in this choice. I left the Conservative party the day that members chose Boris Johnson. The people with the vote now will be the 160 000 members, mainly white elderly and living in the South East, somewhat unrepresentative of the population as a whole. My vote will have to await a General Election, probably in May 2024.
Initially eleven MPs put their names forward, all pledging to fulfil ‘the opportunities of Brexit’. Even Jeremy Hunt, an ardent Remainer knocked out in the first round, felt he had to say he had changed his mind. Just as most Republicans in the USA are trapped by Trumpism, compelled to proclaim that the Biden election was stolen so they will be voted in by their base next time, so the UK Conservatives are boxed in by Brexit. Any Conservative politician who fails to signal adherence to the fiction (or sacred truth, depending on your viewpoint) that Brexit provides new freedoms and new opportunities will be instantly branded rebels.
The two candidates have their differences. Rishi presents himself as the truth-telling realist, that Covid schemes needed money, and taxes needed to rise to pay for them. Liz is from the right wing of the party, and believes that tax cuts now, despite inflation already over 9%, is essential. Both have considerable political experience, though the instant that the short list was announced Liz made a perhaps unhelpful tweet. Earlier she had said that she would hit the ground running: her latest tweet confirmed that she would just hit the ground….
Having said that, she is the likely victor amongst Conservative members. She is promising tax cuts, bribing voters with their own money, while promising more on defence etc. Rishi describes this as fairy-tale economics, and the prospect of two senior Tories attacking each other over the coming weeks is unlikely to win over floating voters in 2024.
Whoever wins in September, the one constant is that there will be no sudden reaching out to the EU to mend the fences the UK continues to break. The UK Parliament will complete the process of disavowing the Northern Ireland Protocol even though the majority of the NI population and indeed the majority of the political parties there continue to see its benefits. Having already denied UK participation in the important Horizon programme, the EU is likely to introduce more trade restrictions, and that will be used as an excuse to blame EU intransigence on a country which dares to try and go its own way.
I suggest that this has been the plan all along. Liz Truss has led the charge in saying not just that the protocol must be interpreted more loosely but that the legal text itself must be changed. She knows that this is not possible, and that is the whole point. She wants to bash Brussels to cement her support with the Right, so there is no need for the EU trying to find yet another compromise which will fall on deaf ears. The country will flounder further
If this sounds depressing then I have failed in this message. I am actually optimistic, and conclude that there is finally light at the end of the Brexit tunnel.
The PM election campaign has shown that the gulf amongst Conservatives is unbridgeable within one single party. In September the Conservatives will have had their fourth Prime Minister within twelve years, with the last three all forced out of office. The question therefore is not who will be the next Leader, but whether the present party is leadable by anybody?
My conclusion is No, and that the wider electorate will decide that after 12 years (soon to be 14) of slogans instead of strategy, of loyalty to Boris instead of the truth, of bluster instead of policy, it is time for a change. Former PM James Callaghan said perceptively when facing a resurgent party under Margaret Thatcher: “You know there are times… when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”
Such a shift is approaching again.
So my advice to the EU Commission, and to other Member States, is simple.
Do not worry. Be patient. Change is coming.
The Author, Philip Bushill-Matthews, is former Leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament