Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Analysis

The week of the Tory long knives

  • Neither May or Gove plan to invoke Article 50 before the end of 2016. Nor do they plan to bring forward the next general election date from 2020. (Photo: Yiannis Theologos Michellis)

Rarely has a week left the political landscape littered with so many corpses. Since last week’s fateful Brexit vote, Westminster has turned into Game of Thrones meets House of Cards.

Michael Gove’s dramatic destruction of Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions on Thursday was the final act in a week of brutal assassinations. David Cameron, George Osborne, and now Johnson, now find themselves all played out.

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For the opposition Labour party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn made it to the weekend in his post despite losing a no confidence vote among Labour MPs by 172 to 40 on Wednesday (29 June), it is a reminder that the Conservatives make far better butchers.

The field of five candidates includes three Leave supporters: Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox. Of these, Leadsom was the Leave campaign’s most assured speaker on the economy. Home Secretary Theresa May, who has been installed as the heavy favourite, and Work and Pensions minister Stephen Crabb both backed the Remain campaign, although without too much enthusiasm. Fox is the outsider and likely to be the first candidate to be eliminated.

The field of five will be reduced to three next week, with MPs voting on Tuesday (5 July) and then Thursday (7 July). The two candidates to go to the run-off of the roughly 150,000 Conservative party members will be selected on 12 July.

After a near two month campaign for the grass-roots, the result of the election will be announced on 9 September.

’Et tu Brute’

The elimination of Johnson was as sudden as it was stunning.

"The former London Mayor and Leave front-man had lined up Gove and Leadsom as his main endorsers, with Gove his campaign chairman. Yet the seemingly loyal consiglieri decided late Wednesday night that Johnson was not up to it and delivered a career ending character assassination the following morning.

"I came…reluctantly and firmly, to the conclusion that while Boris has great attributes he was not capable of uniting…and leading the party and the country," was Gove’s stiletto-edged summation, accompanied by the declaration that, if Boris couldn’t hack it, the understudy would have to stick his claim to play the lead.

Johnson will still bear the bulk of the responsibility for delivering the Leave vote and then walking away from the consequences, but without reaching his lifetime ambition of becoming Prime Minister. ’Et tu Brute’ [you too, Brutus] was his father, the former MEP Stanley Johnson’s, reaction to Gove’s treachery.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Gove is automatically a favourite.

For one thing, the assassin seldom takes the crown, and Gove’s ruthlessness in despatching Johnson makes him damaged, not to mention untrustworthy, goods to many MPs. Party grandee Ken Clarke, a veteran of more than two decades as a minister for the last three Tory prime ministers, urged Gove to stand aside, accusing him of ‘bizarre manoeuvrings’ more suited to the student union.

“Michael Gove would do us all a favour if he was to stand down now and speed up the process,” said Clarke.

Ben Wallace, an MP, compared Gove to Theon Greyjoy - "he will be by the time I am finished with him" - the Game of Thrones character who is castrated.

Besides, both May and Crabb have teams and supporters in place. May, for example, has already been endorsed by 91 of the party’s 320 MPs. Gove, by his own admission, only decided to run at about 1am on Thursday morning, and the 20 MPs to have formally declared their support for him by Friday night were mostly stunned Johnson supporters who had immediately transferred their affections.

Brexit means Brexit

Only five MPs attended the speech formally launching his campaign at the Policy Exchange think tank on Friday (1 July).

In a 5,000-word, policy heavy speech, Gove promised to increase public health spending by £100m a week for the NHS, from the £350 million the Leave campaign wrongly claimed constitutes the UK’s weekly contribution to the EU budget, and an end to freedom of movement.

If policy is relatively thin on the ground, what unites all five candidates is that the referendum result cannot be undone. There will be no second vote. Brexit means Brexit.

EU leaders hoping for some movement on the triggering of Article 50 to start the two year countdown on Brexit negotiations are likely to be disappointed. Neither May or Gove plan to invoke Article 50 before the end of 2016. Nor do they plan to bring forward the next general election date from 2020.

May has pledged to create a new government department responsible for conducting Britain's negotiation with the EU. She has also abandoned her proposal, made as a minister, to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.

After another week of turmoil, there should be more clarity this time next week. But don’t expect the Conservative party to give any heed to the impatience of Juncker et al for the UK to set a date for its EU departure.

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

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