Let’s start with what we know. The Withdrawal Agreement has been defeated in the Commons three times. The opposition parties have whipped to vote against it. A core of roughly 30 Tory MPs seem opposed to it at any cost. And opposition MPs won’t defy their whips to vote for it, at least in numbers that make any difference.
These are the facts against which the plans of the candidates in the Conservative leadership election must be judged. Over the weekend, Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid both put forward Brexit plans with detailed alternatives to the backstop. Both seek to amend it and make alternative arrangements. The main strength of Hancock’s is that he recognises that changing the Political Declaration is very much easier than changing the backstop. The biggest plus of Javid’s is that he understands that Ireland is a net loser from any form of Brexit, and proposes compensation. We have long made this case.
Neither, however, is guaranteed to pass through Parliament. Arguably, neither is likely to do so, even in the improbable event that the EU and the Irish Government are prepared to amend the backstop provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement. A pincer movement from Labour’s front bench and the Conservative Spartans would band together against both plans. The former have an incentive to bring down a new Tory Prime Minister right at the start – and the latter are unlikely to fold.
Are we picking unfairly on Hancock and Javid? Not so: we start with them only because they have set out the most detailed plans so far based on the Withdrawal Agreement. Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab’s positions are similar in principle: both seek to amend the deal on offer. If either they or others want to drop the backstop altogether, that would offer a plus and a minus. The plus is that such a proposal, in the form of the Brady amendment, is the only plan to have passed the Commons to date. The minus is that the Irish Government and the EU will be even more hostile to it.
Nor are those candidates who propose returning to the Commons with some form of Theresa May’s deal the only ones whose plans are unlikely to succeed. At one end of the spectrum, Esther McVey wants to go for No Deal. But this anti-No Deal Commons, supervised by its biased Speaker, will search for ways of stopping it from happening – as it has to date. At the other, Sam Gyimah wants a second referendum. However, there is no majority in the Commons for the Bill that a second poll would require.
Andrea Leadsom wants a managed form of No Deal. The EU would be unlikely to co-operate, at least initially. And by the time it had got round to going so, her government would be gone – sunk by a no confidence vote. The same applies elsewhere. Philip Hammond and company would help bring down McVey; the Spartans and friends would do the same to Gyimah (and that’s assuming that any of these minor candidates could get elected in the first place). Rory Stewart is passionately for May’s deal. But passion is no substitute for numbers.
Almost alone, Jeremy Hunt seems to understand the paradox: no Brexit first, no election victory afterwards. No election victory first, no Brexit afterwards. And he can no more unriddle it than can anyone else.
Hunt, Hancock, Javid, Johnson, Raab, McVey, Gyimah, Leadsom, Stewart – all would face the same likely course of events as Britain’s new Prime Minister, namely the defeat of their plans in the Commons, followed shortly by a no confidence vote, or at least the threat of one, and a general election. They might be able to postpone the day of agony by plumping for an extension. Such appears to be Michael Gove’s position. None the less, that day would still come sooner or later.
So we come to the crunch. All signposts point towards a general election. But none of the candidates dare say so – because they are dependent, in the first stage of the contest, on the votes of Conservative MPs. Some of them know that a poll would end their service in Parliament. Others fear that it would cast the Party into opposition even were they returned (which is reasonable enough). The overwhelming likelihood of an election is the truth that dare not speak its name. The Fixed Terms Parliament Act might delay one but, as we saw in 2017, it is a barrier that MPs can ultimately vault.
There is a strange unreality to this leadership contest. The greater the electoral danger to the Tory Party, both from the Brexit Party and elsewhere, the more fringe candidates seem to emerge. None of them have risen to the scale of the challenge to date, and the reason isn’t hard to find – namely, that none are willing to admit that an election is likely, and set out how on earth they would win it with Brexit undelivered.
Theresa May didn’t fail simply because she couldn’t sell her policy. She did so because there is no majority in this Commons for it. There seems to be no majority in it for anything. Until the candidates face up to that fact, they are chasing at shadows.