By George Pickering*
On Friday May 24th, Theresa May gave a tearful speech outside Downing Street, announcing that she will be stepping down from her current roles as British Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, on June 7th. Throughout her short two years in the office, Mrs. May’s premiership seems to have been defined by three factors: her status as by far the most moderate and anti-ideological Conservative Prime Minister since the 1970s; her conciliatory, compromising, and ultimately failed approach to negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU; and her consequent deep unpopularity, resulting in a near-total wipeout for the Conservatives in last month’s EU Parliament elections.
Her resignation has triggered a leadership contest within the governing Conservative Party and, thanks to the peculiarities of the British parliamentary system, whoever wins this leadership contest will automatically become the next Prime Minister. The race has quickly become quite crowded, with 13 Conservative MPs already having announced their candidacy at the time of this article’s writing, and a few others rumoured to be considering joining the race.
Before assessing the current candidates, however, a brief aside to note that Wycombe MP Steve Baker recently announced that he is considering joining the race, having come in fourth place in a prominent poll. Baker has not only been arguably the most consistently hard-line Brexiteer in all of Westminster, but is also a co-founder of the Cobden Centre, and one of the only British politicians with an explicit and well-informed appreciation of Austrian Economics (his personal website recommends books by Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, F.A. Hayek, Jésus Huerta de Soto, and Roger Garrison, amongst others). Therefore if Baker does enter the race, he would instantly claim the title of not only the least-worst, but positively the best candidate by far, from an Austro-Libertarian perspective. For the time being, however, this article will confine itself to assessing only the 13 candidates who have officially announced, so far.
It is hardly surprising that Brexit has been the sole issue around which this Conservative leadership contest has been revolving, not only because of its obvious importance to the country at large, but also because it is one of the only areas in which the 13 candidates differ from each other significantly.
|Candidate||Odds of winning the Leadership||How they campaigned in the 2016 Referendum||How they propose to deliver Brexit||How they voted on T.May’s Brexit Deal||What they supported in the ‘Indicative Votes’|
|Boris Johnson||6/4||Leave||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Opposed May’s Deal in the first two votes, then supported in the third vote.||Leave with No-Deal|
|Michael Gove||7/2||Leave||Deal that compromises with Remainers||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Abstained|
|Andrea Leadsom||7/1||Leave||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Abstained|
|Dominic Raab||10/1||Leave||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Opposed May’s Deal in the first two votes, then supported in the third vote.||Leave with No-Deal|
|Rory Stewart||18/1||Remain||Deal that compromises with Remainers||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Opposed both No-Deal and Second Referendum|
|Jeremy Hunt||12/1||Remain||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Abstained|
|Sajid Javid||22/1||Remain||Deal that compromises with Remainers||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Abstained|
|James Cleverley||40/1||Leave||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Opposed Second Referendum, Abstained on No-Deal|
|Matt Hancock||50/1||Remain||Deal that compromises with Remainers||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Abstained|
|Esther McVey||66/1||Leave||Leave with No-Deal||Opposed May’s Deal in the first two votes, then supported in the third vote.||Leave with No-Deal|
|Kit Malthouse||66/1||Leave||Deal that compromises with Remainers||Consistently supported May’s Deal||Leave with No-Deal|
|Mark Harper||80/1||Remain||Preferably re-negotiate the Deal, but leave with No-Deal if necessary||Opposed May’s Deal in the first two votes, then supported in the third vote.||Leave with No-Deal|
|Sam Gyimah||150/1||Remain||Second Referendum||Consistently opposed May’s Deal||Second Referendum|
The candidate with the best position on Brexit seems to be former TV presenter Esther McVey, who is currently the only candidate outright advocating a No-Deal Brexit, having said that the withdrawal agreement needs to be simply “put out of its misery.”
The second most hardline Brexiteer is former Secretary of State for Brexit Dominic Raab, who the bookies have consistently ranked as one of the top four names in the race. Although Mr. Raab has technically announced he will seek a “fairer” deal from the EU, he has been quick to emphasise that he would keep No-Deal on the table. Raab is a founder of the “Leave Means Leave” campaign, which advocates for a ‘“WTO Terms” (i.e. No-Deal) Brexit, and has also warned MPs that they would not be able to stop him from forcing through a No-Deal Brexit if he did become Prime Minister. Aside from the issue of Brexit, Mr. Raab holds a black belt in Karate, has referred to himself as “more rightwing than Thatcher,” and has caused controversy by calling feminists “obnoxious bigots” and then refusing to apologise for it. Raab was also involved in a minor scandal when it was revealed that he was a member of a private Facebook group called “British Ultra Liberal Youth — The Ultras,” which advocated privatising the NHS, abolishing government housing, and re-establishing the Dickensian workhouse system. All of this suggests that Raab has the potential to at least be a very amusing Prime Minister, if nothing else. Although McVey’s position on Brexit is slightly better, Raab’s hardline stance combines with his high polling to suggest him as arguably the least-worst candidate to deliver Brexit, at least until Steve Baker joins the race.
Although McVey and Raab are the two most hardline Brexiteers currently in the race, there is a larger group of candidates who at least pay lip-service to the idea of keeping No-Deal on the table. This group includes the race’s clear front-runner, former London Mayor Boris Johnson. Despite his notorious opportunism, Johnson has admittedly been a relatively consistent voice for Brexit since the 2016 referendum campaign, and has been adamant in his recent insistence that he would not extend Britain’s EU membership beyond the current October 31st deadline, even if that means leaving with no deal. Although Johnson’s position on Brexit is not the best in the race, he would likely be a relatively unobjectionable Prime Minister from Brexiteers’ perspectives, at least compared with most of the other candidates in this leadership contest, and certainly compared with Theresa May.
At the other end of the spectrum is the worryingly large number of candidates who entirely reject the idea of No-Deal, and instead propose some sort of “soft Brexit.” Many of these candidates have made conspicuously similar calls for “unity” and “listening” on Brexit, which can be read as a desire to compromise with pro-EU “Remainers” in order to produce a withdrawal agreement that can achieve wider support in Parliament.
The leading name in this group is Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who made his name as a strong-willed and uncompromising reformer during his time as David Cameron’s Education Secretary, but subsequently devolved into one of the most sycophantic defenders of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Although Johnson is widely expected to win the leadership, recent developments seem to suggest Gove could be edging ahead in the race. It can certainly be predicted that much of the Tory establishment would rather throw its weight behind the moderate, ‘safe pair of hands’ insider Gove, rather than the charismatic, eccentric hardliner Boris. Of all the candidates in the leadership race who actually have a chance of winning, Gove seems to be the one most likely to simply offer a continuation of Theresa May’s policies, which should be a deeply worrying prospect to both Brexiteers and libertarians.
When setting out to write this article, I initially intended to distinguish it from other, similar articles by assessing the candidates’ views on a wide range of different issues, rather than focussing on Brexit exclusively. Unfortunately however, the candidates voting records on other issues are, with a few minor exceptions, almost completely identical to each other, making it difficult to assess how far they truly differ from each other outside of their rhetoric.
The reason for the candidates near-identical voting records can be traced to the British Parliament’s “whipping system” whereby party leaders can impose penalties on their MPs if they do not follow the party line in Parliamentary votes.
The current 13 leadership candidates all seem to have voted with the party line very consistently on issues including supporting British military intervention in the Middle East, supporting the expansion of government mass surveillance, and opposing decentralisation of power to local councils and to the Welsh and Scottish assemblies. They also all largely voted in favour of the Conservative leadership’s inconsistent tax policy over the past decade, which opposed higher taxes on income, corporations, and banks, but supported higher taxes on alcohol and plane tickets, and raised VAT.
The existence of the whipping system muddies the waters in judging whether the current leadership candidates voted as they did because their convictions happened to line up with party policy, or whether they simply lacked the will to rebel. In any case, a glance at these voting records quickly dispels the idea that any one of the 13 leadership candidates could be described as good, or even strongly preferable, from an Austro-Libertarian perspective.
*About the author: George Pickering is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and a student of economic history at the London School of Economics.
Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute