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Finally, a Tory candidate with guts to call for a referendum

by Hugo Dixon | 02.06.2019

Sensible Conservative MPs should rally around Sam Gyimah, the only leadership candidate with a viable plan to stop “no deal”. The former universities minister has become the 13th person to enter the race to succeed Theresa May. But unlike everybody else, Gyimah is arguing we will need a new referendum to resolve the deadlock in Parliament.

All the other contenders say either that they are prepared to quit the EU without any deal or that they will seek a deal. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner, is in the former camp. He is being egged on by Donald Trump, who says on the eve of his state visit to Britain this week that Johnson would be an “excellent” prime minister and that Nigel Farage should be sent in to negotiate with the EU.

Many sensible Tory MPs are rightly aghast at such a prospect. But until now they have been rallying around one of the soft Brexit candidates – such as Rory Stewart and Matt Hancock, who don’t want to crash out but don’t want a referendum either. Amber Rudd, for example, is reported to be backing Hancock. David Gauke, the justice secretary, says he’s supporting Stewart.

But what’s the point in supporting such candidates? The Tory leadership battle is like something from reality TV where in each round the weakest candidate gets eliminated by MPs. The finalists are then presented to the party’s members, who will almost certainly choose an extreme Brexiter. So although Stewart or Hancock might get through a few rounds, they have no chance of being elected.

The same, of course, can be said of Gyimah. But the real battle is not to stop an extreme Brexiter being chosen as Tory leader; it is to stop them crashing out of the EU once they are prime minister. This is where the former universities minister has an edge over Stewart and Hancock.

It’s not as if the soft Brexiters will be able to reach an accommodation with an extreme Brexit prime minister who has Farage breathing down their neck and Trump whispering in their ear. There is no half-way house between leaving with a deal and leaving without a deal – any more than there is any such thing as being half pregnant.

But there could be an accommodation between wanting the people to have the final say on Brexit and wanting to leave without a deal: hold a referendum where one of the options is to crash out of the EU. This is because a People’s Vote isn’t a type Brexit; it is a way of resolving the deadlock in Parliament over what to do about Brexit.

What are the alternatives? Resuscitating May’s miserable deal which MPs have rejected three times already? Crashing out? Or calling a general election?

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has already come to the view that a new referendum may be the least bad option. As other sensible Tories consider the alternatives, they could come to the same conclusion. And with Jeremy Corbyn under intense pressure to come off the fence on the need for a public vote, the next prime minister could be driven to embrace a referendum even if it against their wishes.


So Gyimah has a convincing story to tell about how to stop “no deal” in a way that Stewart and Hancock don’t. The more MPs back him in the leadership contest, the larger the posse there will be afterwards to prevent Johnson or another extreme Brexiter doing something foolish. So the sensible ones should rally around Gyimah – and do so now.

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Edited by Max Waller

One Response to “Finally, a Tory candidate with guts to call for a referendum”

  • Yes, good on Gyimah. He might like to say that he thinks that whoever gets to be elected, it’s a near certainty that Parliament will take control of the process. I imagine he’s not the only Tory MP amenable to that’s happening.