Nigel Farage has felled another Tory Prime Minister. This time before the results of the vote were even announced.
The erstwhile UKIP Leader has been the tail that wagged the Tory dog for years now. It was his European elections victory in 2014 that sealed Cameron’s fate, forcing him to place a referendum pledge at the centre of the 2015 General Election manifesto and setting events in train that would lead to his resignation just a year later. Having won that referendum, and dispatched Cameron, Farage claimed that he was ‘retiring’. In truth, he was plotting his next move. The product of that careful plotting – the Brexit Party – has enjoyed stunning success. It has cannibalised UKIP. It has forced Theresa May from office. All that and it hasn’t actually won a single election yet.
The results of this week’s European elections will be announced on Sunday evening and Monday morning – the delay is because most European countries (rather sensibly) vote at the weekend and there is a longstanding tradition that it is wrong to announce the results from one part of the electorate whilst another part of the electorate is still voting. As things stand it is very likely that the Brexit Party will have topped the poll, on a pledge to drive a ‘no deal’ Brexit and that Labour and the Lib Dems will be battling it out for second place. UKIP, Change UK and the Tories may all be in single figures – disappointing for Change UK and UKIP, mortifying for the Conservative Party. This is part of the backdrop to Mrs May’s resignation statement – in which she agreed to relinquish leadership of the Tories on June 7th and the Prime Ministership once a successor has been selected. But it is not only the Brexit Party’s looming triumph that has seen her off, it is also the same relentless Parliamentary arithmetic that these notes have been explaining for months. She has finally agreed to go because she has finally – incomprehensibly late – recognised that she does not have the votes.
Her latest gambit was to proceed with bringing the legislation for her Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament as though she had in fact won her ‘meaningful vote’, rather than having actually lost it. Three times. The idea was that she could add a whole load of goodies into that Bill which would then tempt Labour into supporting it (or at least abstaining at second reading). So, she chucked everything in: workers’ rights, environmental protection, the possibility of a vote for a second referendum, options on a customs union. It wasn’t enough. Worse, whilst trying and failing to win over Labour MPs she lost Tory MPs who had previously supported her. She ended up with less than the sum of her parts and ran, finally, out of road.
And so – finally – political gravity snapped back into force. She faced certain defeat both in the country and in Parliament. She has accepted it, at last. There will be a new Prime Minister by the Autumn and – as things stand – the overwhelming odds are that it will be Boris Johnson entering Downing Street in Mrs May’s stead.
Of course, something might happen to upset the Boris bandwagon. Some new, altogether darker characteristic or misdeed may emerge. Conservative members might suddenly recall that his performance in high office has not always been what one might hope for from a senior politician. He might bottle it, as he did once before. But Boris is the overwhelming favourite – streets ahead with the membership, well-funded and with strategic support from Lynton Crosby and others, blessed with just enough support amongst Tory MPs to see him safely through to the final two. Of course, there has been a lot of hot air from some of the Parliamentary Party about stopping Boris ‘at all costs’ but in reality Tory MPs are unlikely to achieve it, however much they hate him. They risk deselection by their own associations if they are seen to be keeping Boris from the popular vote. They have no alternate candidate with his name recognition or track record winning elections. They are not a coherent grouping even on their own terms. And so whilst something might happen to stop Boris it is not likely that any such thing will occur – a Johnson premiership is the most probable outcome now.
What does that mean for Brexit? Boris will have won on the basis that he can take the sting out of Farage’s tail. That means preparing properly for ‘no deal’ and making the positive case for it (a feat of rhetorical gymnastics that perhaps really does demand Johnson’s unique talents). Boris will probably aim for a deal, but he will be obliged to talk up ‘no deal’ which could mean an election on exactly that prospect in the Autumn. Boris’ triumphant seizure of the Tory crown will not mark the end of Britain’s age of uncertainty, merely the end of the beginning.