So May has gone. Or at least said when she will go. Her statement today that she will stand aside on 7th June, together with the announcement by Brandon Lewis and others about the timetable for the leadership election that will conclude by mid July, gives us the framework. Into that we need to start putting some details.

We do not ultimately need to wait until mid July for the lay of the land to become at least a little clearer. The Conservatives have a two-stage leadership selection system – MPs first have to narrow down the field of candidates to just 2, and those 2 go forward to a poll of the members. That selection among MPs is to take place the week commencing 10 June. The big question is whether Boris Johnson makes it through to the final 2 – he’s disliked among MPs but enjoys much greater support among members. If Johnson is in the final two, we can begin to work out what will then happen.

The question then is what do the leadership contenders even say about Brexit? I think two commitments one could make – that they back May’s Deal or that they back a second referendum can already be ruled out. Either of these routes is wildly unpopular among Tory party members, and hence there will be a commitment to neither of these routes from any candidate.

The referendum issue is potentially interesting when candidates come under pressure. “If it’s a straight choice between No Deal and a referendum, what would you do?” or “Do you rule out a referendum in all circumstances?” might force candidates to make commitments they can then no longer keep. However flexible someone like Boris Johnson might be in is personal beliefs, he is going to struggle to avoid making commitments that then limit his room for manoeuvre later.

Some of this can be assuaged away with some magical thinking in the short term – at least until May’s replacement is in office. Apparently Graham Brady is putting his hat into the ring. He, lest we forget, was the genius behind the idea to replace the Northern Irish Backstop with “alternative arrangements without specifying what those were. Also expect the Malthouse Compromise (explanation) to be revised in some form, despite the EU saying the technology to make it work does not exist.

There will also be plenty of words from candidates saying they want to negotiate a better deal with the EU, without any explanation whatsoever as to what that better deal might be, or how it could be achieved. The important check on any such statements would need to be whether the stated aim could be accomplished only with changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, or if changes just to the Political Declaration would suffice. If it is the latter, the EU will be open to it. The former is not somewhere the EU wants to go – it would take some major charm offensive to persuade the EU to open the Withdrawal Agreement.

I expect pretty much all the candidates to aim for the “we’d prefer a Deal, but we’re not scared of No Deal” zone. But the question then in response to that is: do you have a majority for No Deal? Attracting any Labour or other MPs to that position is going to be next to impossible, and if only 3 Tories were to cross the house then the Tories + DUP have no majority any more (current state of the parties here). And there are least 3 Tory MPs – Grieve, Sandbach, Lee and Gymiah spring to mind – that would do pretty much anything to stop No Deal happening. The Tories might conduct their leadership election as if they are unassailable, but the reality in the Commons does not reflect that.

No majority means that a General Election looms. I am pretty sure that with Brexit still not delivered, and with the Tories fearful of Nigel Farage and having taken a battering at the local and European elections that no one really is keen on that, at least initially. If the Tories’ poll numbers get a boost due to May’s departure, some consideration of the tactical benefits of a General Election (not least as a way to free themselves of the DUP and hence the Northern Ireland problem in Brexit) might start to play a greater role in the leadership debate.

Meanwhile the EU must, for the moment, wait, look on and prepare. Seeing the back of the stubborn and inflexible May will lead to some sighs of relief in Brussels and the national capitals around the EU, but a glance at the alternatives (and indeed a glance at the demography of Tory Party members that will ultimately make the decision) will leave everyone scratching their heads once more. The EU must brace itself for excessive and unreasonable demands from May’s successor, but knowing how flimsy the majority is for Tories + DUP in the Commons can push back reasonably hard, knowing there is no majority for No Deal in Westminster.

By mid June the shape of the leadership race will be clear. By mid July May’s successor will be known. And then the headaches will then really begin. It is going to be a bumpy autumn, up until 31st October. And even beyond.


  1. US Deal? Are we about to see how the U.S. is colonizing the UK? Being an equal partner among 28 others in the EU would be a viable option.

  2. Rosalind Stewart

    Another very good post, Jon! But could you spell out the pressures that will inevitably arise (I think1!) when whoever becomes next PM 1) fails to get further concessions from EU 2) fails to get No Deal through Parliament and then 3) fails to deliver Brexit? These pressures will result in either a second referendum or a general election. I cannot see Conservatives calling for a general election under these circumstances. It’s second referendum as the least-worst option. And could definitely see BoJo calling one as he’s so lacking in personal integrity.

  3. Charlie Aerö

    “Seeing the back of the stubborn and inflexible May will lead to some sighs of relief in Brussels and the national capitals around the EU, but a glance at the alternatives”

    I disagree, Jon. I strongly suspect that almost all have been looking at this as a “no win” situation since, at the latest, January 2018, and will simply regard May’s departure (as they always have done) as a further step plunging deeper into the mire. (FWIW, everybody I know who is close to those directly involved has already long been thinking this way … but then they have been talking to me.)

    Why did they not then hang her out to dry on “sufficient progress”? For exactly the reasons you suggest: lack of any less disastrous alternative. i.e. I’m not really disagreeing with the drift of your assessment, just pointing out that it must have been common currency in EU circles for nearly 18 months.

  4. rapscallion

    It is very simple. Either the Tories implement the Referendum result given to them by the people, which is No Deal OR they’re a dead party. Post departure, it is a question of whether the EU or the UK wishes to use tariffs. I don’t see the point of that, so we just trade as we are now, with the added benefit of being completely outside the EU.
    If the EU want to impose tariffs that’s their issue and as the UK imports more to the EU than it exports, then we can impose tariffs too. Two can play that game

    • This phrase is complete rubbish: “Either the Tories implement the Referendum result given to them by the people, which is No Deal”

      NO. There was no commitment whatsoever to No Deal before the referendum, indeed quite the opposite – everyone was promised a tremendous deal. By all means have Brexit, but you can’t interpret the referendum as meaning No Deal.

    • Detlef

      Vou have no idea about WTO rules, do you?

      You leave without a deal and the EU is required by WTO rules to raise the appropriate customs duties. Not doing so would mean that the EU would be violating the WTO non-discrimination and most favored nation rules. And WTO member states then could sue the EU.
      Likewise for border controls for regulatory conformity.
      (Exceptions exist for customs unions, free trade agreements and regional trade blocks.)

      The UK leaves without a deal and the EU is then required to follow WTO rules and treat you like any other WTO member state (without a deal). Nothing to do with punishment, just a consequence of your actions.

      The exact same is of course also true for the UK.
      You leave without a deal, you have to “impose tariffs”. Or get sued.

  5. Steeev

    Do not forget Trump’s visit. He might pitch a close trade deal of sorts which will economically bind UK to US; this may be seized upon the “THE deal – with our friends across the pond” – so justifying the no-deal with EU.

    No deal justifies the US deal, and the US deal justifies no deal. A marriage made in… ??? :/

  6. Thanks for the great post. Would you be able to clarify what you mean by “no majority means that a General Election looms” please?
    In other words, if the next PM was determined to deliver brexit at any cost, and had little interest in any other agenda, what mechanism would prevent them just limping on until Halloween without attempting to pass any legislation, and allowing the current A50 end date to take effect?
    What’s the likelihood of a no-confidence vote being triggered against the government in this scenario?

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