As Theresa May promises to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back next month for a fourth vote, few in Government believe it has much – if any – hope of passing. However, May's decision to announce its return has increased speculation that she will be forced to stand down next month – whether her deal passes or not. When that time comes, the contest to find her successor will begin.
Cabinet ministers have been minded to put off that contest for as long as possible, in part due to the fact that a Brexiteer like Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab is likely to fare best if the contest occurs before the UK has left the EU. As I say in today's i paper, the success of the Brexit Party has only enhanced that view in recent weeks. MPs are now looking more favourably at Brexiteer candidates who could compete with the Brexit Party. Both Boris Johnson and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab are seen as politicians who have the potential to reunite the party with disillusioned Leave voters.
The debate within the party has been on whether to focus on Battersea or Bishop Auckland – Remain areas or Leave areas. Yet on the current trajectory, the Tories are predicted to win neither. An example of how dire things look for the Conservative party can be found in Walsall North. In the 2017 snap election, Eddie Hughes became the second Tory in history – and the first since 1976 – to win this Labour stronghold in the West Midlands. (Given that the first came in a by-election sparked by the departure of the infamous Labour MP John Stonehouse after he faked his own death to flee to Australia with his secretary and then faced seven years' jail on return, Hughes’ win sticks out as the more impressive feat.)
In the local elections last month, Walsall – which voted heavily to Leave in the EU referendum – was one of the few good news stories for the Tories. On a night where the Conservatives lost 1,300 council seats, the Walsall Tories bucked the trend and took control of the council – a result that has been put down to a combination of hard work on the ground, the local MP’s criticism of May’s deal and a campaign visit from Boris Johnson. It was such a triumph Tory chairman Brandon Lewis picked Walsall as the place to visit for his election victory lap on results day.
Yet if a general election were held tomorrow, analysis by Electoral Calculus puts Walsall North down as one of 59 seats the Tories would lose. Why? Because the Brexit party would take such a chunk out of their vote that Labour would waltz through the middle. Labour would only win the seat if the Brexit vote was split. This is symptomatic of a wider problem – the success of Nigel Farage’s one-policy Brexit Party has magnified the view for Tory MPs that a failure to deliver a clean Brexit will mean the party actually loses Leave seats at the next election – let alone win Bishop Auckland.
Tory Eurosceptics are grumpy that the Brexit Party has been allowed to flourish – a fact they blame on May for failing to listen to their advice on the need for a cleaner Brexit. 'He’s a cheeky chappy but there’s no reason he should be doing this well. We’ve done all the work,' complains one dedicated Tory Eurosceptic, referring to Nigel Farage. But they believe the damage is repairable. 'Once we have a new leader we will be able to get things back on track.'
That leader would need a Brexit pitch that involved a no-deal Brexit at least as Plan B – if not Plan A. 'We need to say we want to renegotiate the deal with Brussels and if they say no, leave on WTO terms when the extension runs out in October,' explains one ERG member. Parliament moved to stop a no-deal Brexit earlier this month so any such leader is in effect also calling for a general election.
It’s an idea welcomed by Crispin Blunt who suggests the party reinvents itself as a Brexit party and then forms a coalition with the official Brexit Party in a snap election. Notably, some Remain-voting MPs are also coming around to the idea of picking a leader who will prepare for some form of managed no deal.
Such a move would isolate many MPs in the current Conservative Parliamentary party. Yet with the Tories sliding in the polls, the Brexit Party set to eat into the party’s vote share and the party’s grassroots rebelling, an increasing number of Tory MPs believe it is their best route out.