The UK’s future now rests in the hands of 0.2% of its population.
The final two candidates hoping to replace Theresa May as prime minister will spend the next month trying to win over 160,000 grassroots members of the governing Conservative party. The winner will immediately take over the party and, all being well, form their own government for a nation of 66 million citizens.
The last two men standing are the favorite, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, who took Johnson’s job as foreign secretary after he resigned in protest at May’s Brexit plan.
Johnson, the nailed-on favorite, has tried to pitch himself as both the only man that can take the UK out of the European Union on October 31 – whether the UK has a deal with Brussels or not – and the sole candidate with enough charisma to unite the bitterly divided Conservative party.
His rival, Hunt, has a slightly softer pitch but has still said that he would support a no-deal exit rather than no Brexit at all.
For whoever wins, it is fated to be the bitterest of bittersweet victories. Ever since the EU granted an extension to the Brexit deadline back in April, nothing of substance has changed and the UK remains stuck in agonizing political gridlock.
Both wannabe PMs might claim they have a plan to secure a different deal with the EU. But neither has any evidence for this, other than a belief that their energy and optimism will be enough to convince the other 27 EU member states to reconsider an international treaty that took the best part of two years to negotiate.
Europe says that the Withdrawal Agreement – the terms by which the UK immediately leaves the EU before moving to negotiating a further relationship, often referred to as May’s Brexit deal – is still the only deal on the table. Not only are European leaders unwilling to reopen talks on the Withdrawal Agreement, they are increasingly preparing for a reality in which it may never pass and a no-deal Brexit would become inevitable.
The new prime minister will not only have to deal with this, but also the fact that they won’t command a majority in British parliament. Therefore, any Brexit deal realistically requires compromise with members of other political parties. After seeing her deal fail, May tried to work with the opposition Labour Party to agree a softer Brexit position, but those talks collapsed before getting off the ground.
Both Johnson and Hunt think that there is only one direction in which they can compromise: to reach an agreement with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, who, in theory, prop up the minority Conservative government.
But, only in theory. The DUP has voted down May’s deal three times, as it believes the deal dangers the sanctity of the United Kingdom and paves the way for a united Ireland – their worst fear.
May’s deal contains a controversial clause called the Irish Border Backstop, which essentially keeps the UK in a Customs Union with the EU in order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
The DUP won’t sign off on a deal that could ultimately see Northern Ireland move closer to unification with the south, so without a reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement and a change or removal of the backstop, they will never back this deal. And both Conservative MPs and grassroot members are happily using the DUP’s obstinance as a reason not to back May’s deal.
No DUP, no Conservative consensus, no deal.
On the Irish side of the argument, the history of violence on the island of Ireland is the primary reason for avoiding any kind of customs border. It is an absolute red line for Ireland, and therefore a red line for the EU.
You’ve probably spotted the problem: The EU won’t move on an issue that is fundamental for the DUP to approve a Brexit deal. So, Johnson and Hunt’s claim that they can get the extra assurances are optimistic at best and dreaming of unicorns at worst.
This is the reality that the new PM will have to deal with from day one: A minority government bitterly divided on Brexit in its own right, the DUP digging its heels in, a membership looking for any reason to dismiss May’s deal and a parliament that cannot agree on anything.
Throw into the mix the fact that the opposition Labour party is edging closer by the day to becoming a party that paves the way to scrapping Brexit altogether – in a nation that only voted to leave the EU by a margin of 4% – and the potential for political chaos becomes even clearer.
While the 160,000 Conservative members select the next prime minister for the rest of the country, they should think carefully about the landscape the anointed leader will suddenly be catapulted into.
If the next UK leader cannot get changes from the EU, they will either have to dress up May’s deal with some extra concessions and try to charm parliament into backing it, or agitate for a no-deal Brexit. At which point, the mother of all parliaments might decide to flex its muscles, bring down the government and force a general election.
It’s really that serious.
Brexit hasn’t gone away and the structural problems it has caused have not been addressed.
When EU Council President Donald Tusk said that the UK must not waste its time after granting the most recent extension, a leadership psychodrama was probably not what he had in mind.