Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.
For a couple of hours on Wednesday evening, it looked as if Theresa May’s decision to announce her departure might just work, and that her Withdrawal Agreement could squeak through the Commons this week.
And then Arlene Foster spoke, and ruined the moment. It seems to me that unless the DUP are playing a unique game of brinkmanship, we’ve reached the endgame. As I write this diary, Andrea Leadsom has announced that there will be a vote today on the Withdrawal Agreement, even though this will not be a Meaningful Vote.
All very confusing, but apparently the manoeuvre was carried out to prevent John Bercow yet again playing silly buggers, and trying to prevent the Prime Minister putting the deal before the Commons again.
If the Government is defeated, that’s it. Game’s up. Theresa May then has twelve days to try for a Meaningful Vote proper, or else come up with an alternative plan. And let’s face it, there isn’t one.
The most likely outcome then is for the EU to be asked to extend Article 50 by a much longer period – maybe up to two years. This would means Britain having to take part in the European elections. Only one person will be cheering about that: Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party would get a boost from such a development.
But here’s a thought. I wonder whether the prospects of a general election on the same day, May 23rd, are also being turbocharged. I doubt whether there are many Conservative MPs who would welcome an election, but sometimes events determine these things. This government is in danger of imploding.
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Of course, were there to be an election, I wonder whether May would say: “Well, I’m the leader, I’ll lead the party into an election.”
But having already announced her departure, it’s very difficult to see that working. The first question she would face is: “So will you serve a full five-year term?” She could reasonably reply that if she gets a mandate, she would of course see out that mandate.
On the other hand, if she stood down before such an election took place, how would the Tories elect a new leader within a few days? I don’t think there’s anything in the party rules about this. In the circumstances, surely MPs would have to elect a new leader on their own, and bypass the party membership. I suspect there could be court action on that, not least from Boris Johnson, who would undoubtedly be the big loser in these circumstances.
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As I write this, I’m watching Dominic Grieve on Sky News trying to make out that the Indicative Vote process was a success, and that he thinks Parliament is coalescing around a confirmatory referendum or joining the Customs Union.
He seems oblivious to the fact that both of these proposals were defeated, along with the six others. Some of the voting patterns in these votes were bizarre. Richard Harrington, the Business Minister who resigned on Monday night, told me in an interview on Tuesday that he would not support the proposal to revoke Article 50 – yet went and did exactly that.
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Let’s assume that a leadership contest does indeed get underway in late May. The sooner it is over the better. It cannot be allowed to last for four months over the summer. Ideally, it should conclude by the end of July.
The bookies show Michael Gove leading the field, but as I know only too well, the favourite rarely wins.
Some smart money is being laid on Matt Hancock, who seems to be emerging as a serious runner. Timing is everything, and this race comes at a good time for him. He’s one of the many Cabinet ministers who’s tacked from Remain to Leave, but his reputation as George Osborne’s vicar on earth may not do him any favours. Osborne himself has talked about being in a Whatsapp group called ‘Make Matt Hancock Great Again’. A lot of people will see Hancock going after the same voting constituency as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid.
Dominic Raab continues to be seen as the ERG’s favourite candidate, but the Eurosceptic right has rarely voted en bloc, and I don’t see it doing so here.
Anything I say about a potential David Davis candidacy will be taken down and used in evidence against me – or him – so I’ll refrain from making any comment.
I said last week that Andrea Leadsom is emerging again as a serious contender, and I stick by that.
Penny Mordaunt, who I thought might emerge as a contender, has remained relatively anonymous over the last six months. Any potential leader will be seeking her support.
Liz Truss has certainly done everything in her power to gain a big public profile in recent months, and in many ways to good effect. But, again, I’d see her as a running mate rather than as a candidate with a serious potential of winning.
However, stranger things have happened, and it is entirely possible that, as in 1975, a candidate emerges who no one took seriously at the beginning of the whole process.