By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
The political agenda in the UK during the last five to 10 years has been pretty much set and driven by one man. He is not a prime minister or leader of the opposition. His name is Nigel Farage. He is the “father of Brexit,” first with the UK Independent Party (UKIP) and now with his newly founded Brexit Party, which he led to a stunning victory during the elections to the European Parliament.
He set the agenda in as much as it was UKIP’s successes that scared then-Prime Minister David Cameron into holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. A lot has happened since that fateful day in June 2016.
Cameron stepped down after the UK’s voters narrowly opted for Brexit. His successor, Theresa May, had originally been a hesitant Remainer. But, in order to placate the Brexiteers in her party, she overcompensated and supported Brexit with the zeal of a convert. She promised the British people that she would deliver Brexit on time, but it was not to happen. The withdrawal agreement she negotiated when dealing with wily EU official Michel Barnier was probably as good as it could get. May got a deal but failed to secure sufficient parliamentary support for it. The deadline slipped twice. She was then forced to resign after the Conservative Party only managed to gather 9.1 percent of votes in the European elections — a disastrous result of epic proportions.
This is the backdrop against which the contest for the Tory party leadership now takes place. The new leader will automatically become prime minister, as the Conservatives are currently in government. The 10 initial contenders are being whittled down to two in a series of votes among Tory MPs. The first poll on Thursday saw three candidates — Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Mark Harper — eliminated. A choice between the final two candidates will ultimately be taken by the Conservative Party membership, which is about 160,000 strong. We will know who the new PM is on July 22. However, legitimacy is the issue: The Conservative Party membership is predominantly male, white, aged over 50 and lives in the southeast of England. This is hardly representative of modern Britain.
Contenders largely define themselves along Brexit lines. All seem to agree that they must deliver Brexit, because “the people have spoken.” However, some of them, including International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, favor an orderly exit. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to secure a Brexit deal that Parliament would support, but has said that, if no compromise can be reached, he would leave the EU without a deal with a heavy heart. Then there are the uber-Brexiteers, who have promised to take the UK out of the EU on the scheduled departure date of Oct. 31 come what may. Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is in that camp, as is Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and ex-foreign secretary. He is, at this point, the front runner, having been backed by 114 MPs in Thursday’s first round of voting. His nearest rival was Hunt on 43.
Johnson is a larger-than-life figure and he has a brand, generally being known only as “Boris.” He is vastly popular among the Conservative Party membership and has the support of the leader of the 80-strong pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs. He is currently the odds-on favorite to win the race.
He put it bluntly on Wednesday, saying that, if the government “kicked the Brexit can down the road again,” the Tories would be “kicking the bucket.” It was noteworthy that he seemed to prioritize what was good for the party over the national interest. There was an element of playing to the gallery because the last hurdle is selection by the party membership.
The leadership contest is driven by Farage’s credo that Britain must leave the EU, so much so that all else falls by the wayside. So far, the only candidates to have come up with comprehensive programs beyond Brexit are Stewart and Environment Secretary Michal Gove, who is a strong Brexiteer.
Some candidates have even vowed to suspend Parliament to ram through a no-deal Brexit should that be necessary. This is because the only thing members of the House of Commons seem to be able to agree on is that they do not want a no-deal Brexit — although a motion that could have tied the next PM to that effect was narrowly defeated on Wednesday.
As the candidates start to get deselected, the Brexiteers are likely to throw their votes behind Johnson. Many see him as the only option to halt Farage’s rise and, crucially, beat Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party in a general election.
Where does this leave the country? According to a leaked confidential Cabinet note, the health care sector and pharmaceutical industries would need six to eight months to build up sufficient stockpiles of medicine so as to be prepared for a no-deal Brexit.Manufacturers and the City of London are deeply concerned as to what happens to their supply chains and ability to clear euro-denominated transactions. Business leaders like Gove’s managerial expertise and don’t quite know what to make of Johnson. If he becomes PM, will he have the persona of the Johnson who was a pro-business mayor or will he be his twin, the sometimes cantankerous foreign minister and uber-Brexiteer? Like with Donald Trump, Johnson can be hard to predict (which is maybe why Trump likes him so much).
All in all, Westminster and an exclusive group of 160,000 talk amongst themselves as to where they want to take the country. Farage may actually have had a point when he criticized the Westminster elite for being aloof and out of touch. In the end, it will be ordinary Britons who will have to live with the result of the Tory leadership “selection” process.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources