25th Sep 2016

Column / Brexit Briefing

The battle for Maggie Thatcher’s handbag

  • Andrea Leadsom is not the favourite in the race for party leadership but she is banking on her strong performance for the Leave campaign being her trump card. (Photo: Reuters)

The next UK prime minister will be a woman. That, at least, is clear. Not much else is.

As expected, Theresa May won the support of a large majority of Conservative MPs in Thursday’s (7 July) ballot to choose the last two contenders for the party leadership.

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  • Theresa May has a far greater public popularity than Leadsom. (Photo: The Council of the European Union")

That May would top the poll was obvious from the first ballot on Tuesday (5 July), when she won 165 votes and the endorsement of Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox who, respectively, withdrew and were eliminated from the contest.

Michael Gove’s political assassination of Boris Johnson looks like the ultimate political kamikaze mission. Despite Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox’s elimination from the race, the number of MPs backing his candidacy actually dropped from 48 to 46 between the first and second ballot.

The charge must be that at the time eurosceptics needed to take responsibility for the surprise success of their campaign and set out a Brexit plan, they set about resigning and back-stabbing.

But despite the magnitude of her victory – May’s 199 votes accounts for nearly two thirds of the 330 MP – Andrea Leadsom, who finished second with 84, will take the campaign to the 150,000 Conservative party members.

The MPs’ vote now counts for nothing. In fact, while the UK’s opinion pollsters, discredited after calling the referendum for Remain, suggest that Theresa May has far greater public popularity, it is Leadsom who starts the two month campaign with an advantage.

That is because the contest is between a Remainer vs a Brexiteer. 70 percent of the roughly 150,000 Tory party members voted for Brexit, and Leadsom is banking on her strong performance for the Leave campaign being her trump card. The Tory members will expect - and demand - that their new leader will inherit Margaret Thatcher’s famous hand-bag and take it into battle in Brussels.

May, for her part, has appointed two Remain campaigners to run her leadership bid, but gave the impression of being a ‘reluctant Remainer’, deliberately taking a vow of silence during the referendum campaign. Unlike finance minister George Osborne, whose leadership prospects were tied to David Cameron winning the referendum, May hedged her bets.

Leadsom’s emergence from junior energy minister to making the leadership run-off is almost on a par with Jeremy Corbyn’s sudden ascension from political obscurity to the Labour party leadership last year. Her assertion that her political inexperience is compensated by a glowing career in high finance, have been questioned by a series of former colleagues claiming that her CV does not match reality.

May, a survivor

May, in contrast, is a survivor, with a CV that boasts seventeen years on the Conservative front-bench, the last six as Home Secretary, one of the toughest – and least popular – jobs in government.

Clarity on policy is thin on the ground, although both candidates, unsurprisingly, have vowed that Brexit means Brexit.

In the first of many expected tacks to the right, May hinted that the rights of EU migrants to remain in the UK could be used as a bargaining chip to guarantee the rights of expat Brits.

“We will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU, and I want to ensure that we’re able to not just guarantee a position for those people but guarantee the position for British citizens who are over in other member states, in other countries in Europe, and living there,” said May earlier this week, adding that “nobody necessarily stays anywhere forever.”

Both May and Leadsom, meanwhile, are telling people that the UK will be able to have its cake and eat it, by retaining single market access with restrictions on freedom of movement.

No mandate for EU exit talks

We are – in other words – at least two months away not just from Article 50 being triggered, but from having a UK prime minister with anything resembling a mandate to begin negotiations.

In the meantime, the pound and property funds are taking most of the punishment on the markets, with most analysts expecting a recession, property price slump, and a steadily weakening currency.

Who navigates these uncertain waters is now in the gift of a group of activists who are, in the words of John Curtice, the BBC’s in-house pollster, mostly over 50, disproportionately male, and "overwhelmingly middle class". This unlikely looking demos will pick the prime minister who - they hope - takes the UK out of the European Union.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer

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