To prorogue or not to prorogue? That’s the question dividing the Brexiteer candidates today following the One Nation conservative hustings. After Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Sajid Javid on Tuesday all ruled out proroguing Parliament in order to achieve a no deal Brexit in the event that MPs tried to block one, Dominic Raab used his appearance on Wednesday night to tell a group of MPs that he would not rule out suspending Parliament to bring about the UK's exit from the EU – with or without a deal.
Proroguing Parliament is what happens at the end of every parliamentary session. In terms of Brexit, the theory goes that a way to stop MPs blocking Brexit through votes would be for a prime minister to simply suspend Parliament and send MPs home until the UK had left the EU. As Parliament is technically 'prorogued' by the Queen, some argue such a move would be a constitutional issue that would involve the monarchy in politics.
Now Raab's position is something he has been hinting at for some time. When I interviewed him for The Spectator last week and pressed him on the issue, he replied: ‘I’m not going to get into the tactical machinations’. However, he was clear that he would use what ever tools were available to the government to ensure the UK leaves the EU at the end of October. Raab's confirmation on Wednesday that it's something he won't rule out is likely to please members of the European Research Group. Rees-Mogg has previously suggested that he thought the government ought to prorogue if it was the only way to deliver Brexit on time. ERG members are still deciding which Brexiteer candidate to back – and Raab's decision to go further than Johnson on this issue could seal the deal for some of its members. It could also land well with the membership – were Raab to make it to the final two. Raab's problem? The bulk of the Tory Parliamentary party is opposed to the idea of proroguing Parliament to deliver Brexit. While this move might boost Raab's numbers ahead of the first round of voting it does put a ceiling on how many MPs overall he may be able to win over. Rudd has come out today against Raab's position while leadership rival Matt Hancock is calling on all the candidates to rule it out.
Conversely these type of comments could be helpful in the long term to Johnson when it comes to appealing to the Parliamentary party overall. Many Conservative MPs who veer towards Remain – or a soft Brexit – reluctantly accept that whether they like it or not the next leader will be a Brexiteer willing to pursue no deal. The question they ask: who is the least worst option? As reported on Coffee House, for a long time there has been a view that there is a Stop Boris operation with Tory MPs keen to keep him off the final two in the contest – which then goes to the membership. But in recent weeks that operation has become 'Stop Raab'. An increasing number of Conservative MPs – particularly members of the One Nation caucus led by Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan – see Raab as the one they would struggle most with as leader. This is in part because Raab is seen as more hardline on Brexit - and because his domestic politics are viewed as more Thatcherite than Johnson's. Raab's comment that he would not describe himself as a feminist also irked some Tory MPs.
This is helping Johnson because it is providing MPs cover to support him. It is now easier for Tory MPs who have in the past been critical of Johnson to say they are warming to him as they can justify it in the context of stopping Raab. A wide range of MPs are coming out in support of Johnson with Damian Collins – who previously called for a second referendum or a general election to break the Brexit deadlock – the latest to declare. In some cases, Conservative MPs simply want to be on the winning team – they believe the wind is blowing in Johnson's favour.
Johnson's campaign is currently exceeding expectations in many quarters and he is widely regarded as the favourite to be the next Prime Minister. As Fraser has reported, if this continues there are leadership candidates who may just stand aside if they make the final two and it is clear Johnson has much more support. What will be pivotal to all this is the number of MPs backing Boris Johnson. There's still plenty of time for things to go awry for Johnson (and hustings where MPs on rival campaigns can ask questions are seen as a potential hurdle) but for now Raab is helping Johnson's pitch to so-called one nation Conservative MPs because he is making Johnson seem softer by comparison.