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Why won’t a pro-referendum Tory stand as leader?

by Hugo Dixon | 26.05.2019

No pro-European has a chance to win the race to succeed Theresa May as Conservative party leader. But by running, they could become a power broker in the next Brexit battles and stop us crashing out of EU.

It might seem futile to stand in a contest they cannot win. But the country is crying out for clear thinking on Brexit. And none of the current candidates is providing it.

There’s a posse of hard Brexiters who say they are happy to leave the EU with no deal. That would do untold damage to our country. One of these candidates, probably Boris Johnson, will win the race.

Then there are those who want to leave the EU with a deal, such as Rory Stewart and Matt Hancock. They have no chance of winning, but they are still running.

By contrast, nobody in this crowded field has yet said there must be a new referendum – even though it is the best way to resolve the deadlock. Some politicians who might have taken this line such as Justine Greening and Amber Rudd have ruled themselves out from standing.

This is a shame. But it is still not too late for a pro-European to throw their hat into the ring – and to set out the Tory case for putting Brexit back to the people. With a hard Brexiter virtually certain to enter Downing Street, the best chance to stop “no deal” will be to ask the people whether that’s what they want.

Those who think they can prevent Johnson or another hard Brexiter crashing out by proposing that we leave the EU with a deal are deluded. That’s the strategy the current prime minister pursued and it ended in tears. There’s only one withdrawal agreement on offer – and it’s the one MPs have already rejected three times.

So what’s the point in Hancock or Stewart saying they want a fourth go? They don’t even have a decent story to tell about how to stop “no deal” because they won’t have any influence on an incoming hard Brexit prime minister. It’s not as if there’s any compromise half way between a deal and no deal.

Things would be different with a pro-referendum candidate. They could tell Johnson or whoever is leader that, if he’s determined to crash out, he must first ask the people. If there are enough Tory MPs who take this line, they may be able to force him to agree.

After all, there is now likely to be a parliamentary majority in favour of a People’s Vote. Labour may well finally pin its colours to the referendum mast. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Tom Watson, deputy leader, ramped up the pressure for this yesterday.

The only obvious alternative is a general election, which is probably the last thing moderate Tory MPs want. So if a candidate in this leadership race argues powerfully in favour of a new referendum, they may do fairly well. They may even overtake the soft Brexiters – and the next Tory leader will then not be able to ignore them.

Running in this race will require guts. But fortune favours the bold. Is there anybody out there willing to rise to the challenge?

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Why won’t a pro-referendum Tory stand as leader?”

  • Some of the people you refer to, Hugo, have left the party. Sarah Woollaston and Anna Soubry may have stood on such a platform if they had stayed in the Tory party. Anna would have argued the case well, in my opinion, and she is quite a formidable woman. (We met her on the second march when she came to the start and thanked people for attending. A nice touch, appreciated by all.)

  • Seem to me that any incoming Tory leader will require 3 mandates if they are to have any chance to survive.
    First, they need the mandate from the Tory party members, to be Tory party leader. Do not assume this is an automatic mandate to also be PM – it is not. That requires a second mandate, from the electorate, by way of a General Election. TM was the last candidate standing to be Tory leader in 2016, but only had her own mandate as PM from the 2017 election. Sadly she failed to recognise the real significance of losing the Tory majority; it meant that the country was seriously divided about Brexit, and some who might have voted Tory chose to vote Labour or another party, seeking a candidate who would support remain; hence the majority in parliament for remain, or at least against hard Brexit or no deal.
    The third required mandate? Now that everyone (including politicians, who we now know had made no preparations for the possibility of a leave vote in 2016) knows a great deal more about the practicalities, pros, cons and consequences of leaving, any government needs a new mandate about how to proceed now – remain after all, or no deal exit? Remember the precedent of the Good Friday Agreement; considerable effort and negotiation that went into preparing the potential deal, then it was put to the people to confirm or reject. The government – of whatever stripe – now requires an up-to-date mandate on whether we continue towards exit, or decide to remain (and get on with ‘normal’ life). Since this is such a crucial issue, it require a clear, single-topic decision. A general election will involve too many other distracting and diluting issues that would muddy the clarity of decision required.

    How sad that such a well-prepared Good Friday Agreement that resolved so much historic conflict is now being put at risk by a hard or no-deal Brexit.

  • It’s a poisoned chalice. They are wise to stay out of it, and almost certainly be consigned to the back benches while the party implodes. Then, untainted by association with the leadership which finally destroyed the party over Brexit, one of them can start the long slow job of rebuilding.

    A job which may not even be possible. But which no Brexiteer will by then be allowed near because they will all be toxic.

  • If there was another referendum and the leave vote won again, would you accept it? Even if it was, yet again, by a relatively small majority? Obviously you did not do so last time; why would you do so this time? Last time the opinion polls right up to the day of the vote indicated that Remain would win. They didn’t. Yet so confident we’re the leaders that one of them, the late Paddy Ashdown, declaimed on the night of the poll “l don’t care if it is by 1% or 20%, when the British people have spoken we do what they command”! I was personally against holding the first referendum at all and I think that the political chaos we have endured since only confirms my view that I was right. Can you really imagine that holding a so-called “people’s vote” would not simply deepen the quagmire into which we have been thrust? It is time to call it a day and set about negotiating the most sensible exit we can. That will require the support of all the major parties.