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This is a contest about hard Brexit 

This is a contest about delivering hard Brexit, not about hard choices or facing facts.

Boris Johnson’s commitment to leave the EU at the end of October with or without a deal is crucial for his campaign. However, with European leaders uninclined to renegotiate, there is no clear path to a deal in Parliament, so he may find his hands tied in moving towards a no deal policy in order to retain his credibility with the Conservative Party. Alternatively, we may find ourselves in a game of ‘no deal chicken’ with the EU, where politicians hold out for as long as possible before laying their cards on the table. In such a thorny dynamic, whoever wins the leadership contest will have to play the game better than Theresa May and ensure the Cabinet and the wider parliamentary party is behind them if they want to succeed.

Even those candidates who insist that we won’t leave the EU on October 31st if a deal is on the table need to prepare for no deal – not least because it’s not just up to Britain. Come the autumn, we could find that the EU has lost patience.

The stalemate will continue

Every candidate thinks they are going to be the one to break the Brexit deadlock – including Rory Stewart with his proposed citizens’ assemblies. They think that somehow they are better negotiators than May and that they can fix the Northern Ireland border question. There also appears to be an unfounded belief that taking a different approach, either by being more genial or by playing hardball with the EU, will unlock a deal. But political realities mean this is unlikely and the deadlock is set to continue.

The new Prime Minister will likely have to confront this issue in October, with two clear options – either an early general election or a second referendum.

Election versus referendum

So, will either of those two choices help break the Brexit impasse?

The Conservative Party certainly doesn’t want a general election. As Jeremy Hunt highlighted earlier this week, they currently risk being squeezed by the Brexit Party on the right and the resurgent Lib Dems on the left in key marginals that they need to win in order to retain power. But without a deal, any prime minister who has promised to leave by a certain date might have no choice but to call a general election to change the parliamentary arithmetic.

But would a general election provide a solution for either of the main parties? Any election would likely be a de-facto referendum and Brexit doesn’t fit into traditional blue team/red team politics. At some stage, Britain has to make a choice between hard Brexit, soft Brexit or Remain. The longer the Conservatives leave it, the more damage it will likely do to their party.

But there are also issues with a second referendum (something that second placed Hunt initially endorsed after the Brexit vote, but is firmly against today). First and foremost, it would require a bill to be passed and therefore needs a Government to push it. As it stands, there is no proof that it will be any more likely to get through than May’s deal, leaving some to conclude that an election is the only way forward.

No one can out Boris Boris 

The favourite never wins in a Tory leadership race. That’s the received wisdom, anyway. But Boris appears to be benefiting from frontrunner status and the ‘snowball effect’ that comes with it. A study of Tory activists for ConservativeHome, released yesterday, found that 54% believe the former foreign secretary should succeed May as party leader.

Boris’ campaign has been helped by a combination of good stage management by his team, which has seen a steady flow of Tory MPs declare that they are supporting him, and a strategy of avoiding direct encounters with the media. Ardent Brexiteer Dominic Raab, meanwhile, has found himself pushed sideways as he is fishing from the same Brexit pond. While Hunt leads the ‘stop Boris’ camp, the presence of others including Michael Gove and Sajid Javid in the race may well hinder his momentum.

There is also a feeling among some groups that even if Boris does have to relent on his commitment to leave the EU by the 31st October, deal or no deal, the narrative will be different. May was seen as inauthentic by many Brexiteers due to her Remainer credentials. Could Boris persuade Parliament to pull together even if he ends up conceding to the EU? We’ll have to see.

Tories have to bite the bullet – or they are in trouble 

Many Conservative MPs have made the mistake of thinking they can do Brexit and move on. As the Brexit Party eats their core vote, the current Brexit stalemate and lack of direction is also likely to discourage new voters, especially younger ones.

Meanwhile, people’s lives continue. Nearly half a decade could be spent trying to sort out Brexit in Parliament, with the domestic agenda left languishing. The Conservatives’ inability to grasp the nettle and confront the truth means a series of challenges – including weak social mobility and lack of opportunity – have been left unaddressed. Change now has to happen outside of Parliament because it is certainly not happening within.

Unless the party finds a collective strategy that addresses its diminishing support it risks facing collapse. While the current Game of Thrones in Parliament is like catnip to Tory MPs, the game may well be over at some point.

A fragmented future?

We could be facing dramatic change in the country over the next five to 10 years. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage will continue to play on the frustrations of the country. With three or four political parties on middling support, we may find ourselves in permanent coalition territory. The fragmented political landscape certainly means more horse trading to come; the Coalition Government, and the current agreement between the DUP and the Conservatives, were just the start.

Lydia Willgress is a senior consultant on Lexington’s communications team. For more information about how Lexington’s experts can support you please contact: Lydia.Willgress@lexcomm.co.uk. 

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