Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, George Freeman, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Nicky Morgan, George Osborne…these are only some of the names being canvassed in today’s papers for the Conservative leadership. The Next Conservative leader question in our monthly survey, which will be published tomorrow, is going to be even longer than usual.
But never mind expressing a view on the outcome. There are even more important matters to hand.
The referendum result is the most seismic domestic political event of our times. It is one that renders a central part of last year’s Conservative manifesto redundant. The Leader of the Opposition may soon be gone. The Prime Minister has already announced that he is going. In effect, his replacement will be selected by Conservative Party members. This is not constitutionally illicit – and the contest will certainly do this site’s traffic no harm – but it cannot seriously be argued that the new Prime Minister will have a mandate from the voters.
Furthermore, there are practical considerations to take into account as well as theoretical ones. The Government already has no workable majority in the Commons. A new one is likely to fare no better. The most likely outcome of the leadership election is the election of a pro-Leave MP. In these circumstances, a group of Tory Remain refuseniks may well dig in to deny the new Government much of its business. A general election might not resolve the impasse, but no other means will be at hand that offers a chance of doing so.
So Prime Minister Johnson or May or Leadsom or Crabb or whoever needs to make an offer to the British people.
The objections to this course are, first, that one might not get the result one wants and, second, that the Fixed Terms Parliament Act will prevent it happening. It is true that the act makes it difficult for governments to respond to unforeseen circumstances, which is why this site has always argued against it. But it is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.
Which leaves one with that first objection. But tactical and party considerations cannot prevail against fundamental political realities – in this case, a Prime Minister with no mandate, and a Commons with no real majority. There is no need for Cameron’s successor to rush to the polls after kissing hands with the Queen. But he or she ought to make it clear that a general election will be sought within, say, six months.