Being British prime minister is a thankless job at the moment. Just ask Theresa May, soon to depart 10 Downing St. May spent two years trying to work out how Britain should leave the European Union, only to have her Brexit deal defeated three times by Parliament — with many in her own party refusing to back her.
May made her resignation as leader of the Conservative Party official Friday. She’ll stay on as prime minister until her party can choose a replacement. But it remains unclear if any of the candidates have a real plan to deal with Britain’s Brexit crisis. Indeed, some candidates could be expected to add to the chaos, rather than subtract from it.
The names of 10 candidates were released Monday. Some on the list, like Boris Johnson, are familiar characters in Brexit politics. Once the mayor of London and foreign secretary, Johnson is known for, among other things, being left dangling on a zip-line and saying women wearing burqas and niqabs looked like “bank robbers”. He is currently the bookmakers’ favourite to win.
Johnson’s closest rivals have slightly less extensive resumes of gaffes. There’s Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary who mistakenly told Chinese officials that his Chinese-born wife was Japanese, and Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, who dropped out of the 2016 leadership race after suggesting she had more stake in Britain’s future because she was a mother. (May has expressed regret she was not able to have children.)
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has more than one cross to bear: Not only have photographs of him drinking glasses of water been going viral for years, but he is now dealing with the admission that he used cocaine a number of times in the past. Another candidate, MP and former soldier Rory Stewart, went further — expressing remorse over smoking opium while in Iran.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and fellow members of parliament Mark Harper and Esther McVey are the other candidates.
With this relatively broad array of contenders and ample time for campaigning, you might expect some fresh ideas on Brexit. All candidates are adamant that they want Brexit, though there are certainly divides in how they’re pledging to undertake the biggest task facing Britain today, and none of their ideas are particularly inspiring.
McVey, a former television presenter turned politician, favours the hardest Brexit of all, according to the Guardian. She wants to leave Europe without a withdrawal agreement, leading to the dreaded “no deal” Brexit that some economists have warned would be economically disastrous. One reporter dubbed McVey’s kamikaze strategy as a ‘Thelma & Louise Brexit’.
McVey may be the only candidate who openly favours a no-deal Brexit over a deal, but others aren’t far off. Raab, the former Brexit secretary, has suggested dissolving Parliament to stop any law that could block or delay Britain’s exit from the EU without a deal. That idea angers some Conservatives, however, as they say it would involve the queen in Brexit.
Johnson, the favourite, has his own tough idea: withholding the $50 billion (Dh183.6 billion) Britain agreed to pay the EU when it voted to leave. Johnson told the Sunday Times this weekend that money was a “great solvent and a great lubricant” in getting a deal. European officials, however, say such a plan would be illegal and amount to a sovereign debt default.
Of the 10 candidates, only two have ruled out a no-deal Brexit. Stewart, an unorthodox candidate who once wrote a book about walking around war-torn Afghanistan, is an outlier in that he publicly favours a softer Brexit that would involve a customs union. The one potential candidate who favoured a second referendum on the terms of leaving the EU, MP Sam Gyimah, dropped out on Monday.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, are one
of Britain’s two major parties, with a history
that dates back almost two centuries and bears
decades of institutional experience governing
This might seem surprising, given the high levels of support for a second referendum among the British public. But the next prime minister of Britain is being decided by an internal party mechanism, not a nationwide election. Conservative lawmakers will begin a series of votes Thursday designed to weed out all but two candidates, who would then go to party members for a postal vote.
This means any would-be conservative prime minister’s campaign won’t be directed at the country but at the party’s base. There are only 160,000 or so Conservative Party members in Britain. They tend to be older, richer and more conservative (with a small c) than the average voter. They also tend to support Brexit more.
Candidates have reason to worry about this part of the electorate, especially given the drubbing that the Conservative Party received in recent European Parliament elections, where it won just four seats, a loss of 15. The Brexit Party, founded only months ago by anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage, won 29.
But the Brexit Party is still essentially a protest party. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are one of Britain’s two major parties, with a history that dates back almost two centuries and bears decades of institutional experience governing. However, hearing the candidates this week, many observers said they were struck by how out of touch with reality they were — and not just on Brexit, but also on issues like taxes and abortion.
These far-fetched policy ideas, combined with the lack of broader popular support for some of the candidates, have given the contest a surreal, somewhat hallucinogenic edge. Faisal Islam, former political editor of Sky News, likened the battle of different ideas to a steeplechase of unicorns — with no drug tests, of course.
Others view it in less whimsical terms: The Financial Times’ Robert Shrimsley described a tendency toward “militancy” that is helping to threaten Britain’s very electoral system. Certainly, the contest to replace May as Britain’s prime minister is looking less like a battle of ideas that could lift up Britain — and more like a race to the bottom.
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.