Jeremy Hunt’s case to be Conservative leader is that he is the sensible, low-risk option. While Boris is now committed – thanks to his interview on Talkradio yesterday to leave the EU on 31st October, come what may, ‘do or die’, Hunt is holding out the prospect of some flexibility.
The last day of October, he said this morning, is a ‘fake deadline’. Trying to force Brexit on that date, he said, could lead to a general election, a Corbyn government, followed by no Brexit at all. If the government were close to cutting a deal, he has said, then we should extend the deadline. If there were no deal in sight, on the other hand, Hunt says he would take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
But how much difference, in practice, is there between what Boris and Hunt are saying? Both, after all, are saying that they are prepared to leave without a deal – and the EU is adamant that it will not reopen negotiations.
There is a strong likelihood, then, that we will end up leaving without a deal. All that Hunt's approach would achieve is to prolong the day of reckoning yet further, put it off maybe another two, three months.
And of course, to get any further extension, Hunt would have to negotiate it with the EU. The UK would be back in begging mode again. It would further the impression that the government was frightened of leaving the EU and was not serious about leaving without a deal.
As for the effect on the Conservative party, it is not hard to work out what would happen – the voters who decamped to the Brexit party in the European elections would stay there. The sense of hopeless drift created by Theresa May’s failure to leave the EU on 29th March, as she had repeatedly promised to do, would be extended further.
What about Hunt’s claim that trying to stick to a 31st October deadline would lead to a general election? There is good reason for thinking that the opposite is true –putting off Britain’s leaving date would increase the chances of a general election.
Why? The only way that the opposition can force an early election is to defeat the government in a vote of no confidence. To do this, Labour would require the support of either the DUP or of recalcitrant Tory MPs. According to Tobias Ellwood, there are a dozen such MPs who are willing to end their careers in a blaze of glory, in infamy, to do just this (although he says he would not be among them) – it if meant them being able to stop a no-deal Brexit.
But that is surely the only reason they would vote against their own government – to stop a no-deal Brexit. They are not going to use this nuclear option in the hope of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street.
But the timetable is not on their side. As Henry Zeffman points out in the Times this morning, Remainers wanting to use a vote of no confidence to stop a no-deal Brexit would have precisely one day in which to achieve their aim.
To get a new government in place by 31st October would require the old one to be defeated in a confidence vote by 3rd September – the very day which MPs return to Westminster after the summer recess. The reason is that a defeated prime minister would have 14 days in which to try to rebuild a majority in the Commons and only then would parliament be dissolved and a general election held – a process which would take up to the end of October. During that period, the defeated PM would remain PM.
Therefore, so long as an incoming prime minister sticks to a deadline of leaving the EU on 31st October – and avoids a confidence vote on 3rd September – it becomes extremely difficult for rebels to stop a no-deal Brexit. Delay beyond 31st October, on the other hand, and the incoming PM would not only make a general election more likely – he would also make it far more likely that former Conservative voters would go with the Brexit party.