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Analysis

Brexiters using Tory leadership coup to push for ‘no deal’

by Nick Kent | 12.12.2018

The Brexiter challenge is not just to Theresa May’s leadership but an attempt to force the UK out of the EU without a deal.

If May doesn’t get the 158 votes she needs to survive in the ballot tonight, a contest will get under way that will not only tear the Conservative party apart but more importantly threatens to bring about a chaotic, no-deal Brexit. That would harm the country far more than the Tory party.

The Conservative Party constitution gives the membership the right to choose between the final two candidates in a leadership contest. Past contests have taken about 12 weeks to complete. Even in 2106, when the party was also in government, the planned timetable began on June 29 and wouldn’t have concluded until September 9 but for withdrawal of the second name on the ballot (Andrea Leadsom).

Tory leadership elections have two stages: first, a series of elimination ballots amongst MPs that produce a shortlist of two remaining candidates. The ballot of party members comes second. This is more complicated because ballot papers have to be printed, a mailshot prepared (with statements from each candidate) and then despatched to the 150,000 members. 

There are two particular reasons it would be difficult to shorten this second stage. The first is technical. The constitution requires that party members must have been members for at least three months prior to the close of the ballot.  This requires a data cleansing exercise before each leadership election which, as the party does not have a centralised membership database, is time consuming.

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The second problem is political. Party members didn’t get the chance to vote in the 2016 contest and were looking forward to the chance to choose the next leader. They will not be happy with either no member’s ballot or a dramatically truncated contest without the regional hustings that have formed part of previous elections. As the rules require the party board to agree the timetable for the second stage with the executive committee of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, this gives the party in the country a veto.

All these factors point to a contest that will take until at least the end of January or more likely mid-February to complete. And of course it is in the interests of Brexiters to string out the contest as long as possible. They want it to be near-impossible for the new leader to negotiate an alternative deal with the EU by March 29 – who in any case might have been elected on a “no deal” platform. Game, set and match to the extreme Brexiters.

It wouldn’t be that easy because parliament could still stop the UK crashing out on March 29 if it asserted itself. Pro-European Tories might even refuse to serve a hard-line Brexiter leader.

No doubt Tory MPs who want to avoid a no deal Brexit will have spotted the dangers. But the Brexiters have a back-up plan: if May doesn’t secure at least two-thirds of Tory MPs’ votes tonight, they will demand she resigns. That makes the magic number for the ERG tonight 210 and not 158. Just like Rasputin, the Brexiters are hard to kill off.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe