After Theresa May's deal was defeated in the House of Commons for a third time, there's heightened speculation that we could now be heading for a snap election. With the Withdrawal Agreement defeated by 58 votes, even if No. 10 tries to put it to another vote it's hard to see how May would manage the numbers. This is why talk has turned to an early election. In the immediate aftermath of that result, both Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP's Ian Blackford called for one. Meanwhile, Theresa May gave the biggest hint yet that she could go for one – 'I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House'.
If MPs fail to get behind May's plan, they could use the indicative votes next week to push for a softer Brexit in the form of a Norway style model or a permanent customs union. There are plenty of Conservative MPs who faced with the choice would rather go to the polls than break their Brexit manifesto commitments. This week, Coffee House understands a letter has been doing the rounds among Tory MPs which aims to remind Theresa May of their red lines and why a long extension – that would include MEP elections – would be intolerable. It's been signed by half the Conservative party according to one MP and the list includes ministers (those who make up the Brexiteer pizza club). One figure involved with it worries that the red lines in the letter mean that those who sign it are edging closer to backing a snap poll as the only way out of the deadlock.
So, who would lead the Tories into an early election? Theresa May this week promised to resign before the second half of the negotiations if her deal passed – but she said nothing about leaving if it didn't. As I write in this week's Spectator, if there is a general election this year, Tories are adamant that May won’t lead them into it. ‘There is a strong sense that she shouldn’t lead us into an election anytime, anywhere, any place,’ explains a member of government. There’s talk of fast-tracking the Tory leadership procedure, finishing the hustings in the space of a week. Under current rules, the membership would then pick between the final two — but time constraints might see MPs decide or the 124,000 members consulted in an online ballot.
There would be plenty of candidates to get through. Half the cabinet are expected to try their luck, while a cluster of less experienced candidates will argue there’s a clear case for a fresh face moving the party on to a new chapter. They might run not to win but to secure a promotion — although even this is a gamble. ‘Less than ten votes is more of a humiliation than a career boost,’ warns one MP.
Sajid Javid is seen as a frontrunner. Promoted to Home Secretary in the wake of the Windrush scandal, he had been seen as the favourite thanks to his Thatcherite principles and backstory as the son of a Pakistani bus driver. However, his star is now waning — his decision to revoke Isis bride Shamima Begum’s citizenship dismissed by many colleagues as leadership manoeuvring and an example of tone-deaf politics.
Jeremy Hunt has been putting in the hours and recently spoke to Iain Duncan Smith’s social justice caucus of Tory MPs. They heard about his driving desire to help the poorest in society, and his past charity work. But he voted Remain, which may damage his chances. Dominic Raab, a committed Brexiteer, is viewed as having the most advanced campaign. MPs report being approached by his foot soldiers for one-on-one meetings. The pitch? As a true Brexiteer and fresh face, Raab is the change the party needs.
Raab’s efforts mean that fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson is falling behind. Johnson is a hit with the Tory grassroots, but he has done little to ingratiate himself with fellow MPs in recent months and is seldom seen in the parliament bars. ‘He hasn’t made an effort to get to know the 2015/17 intake — which is crucial,’ says one MP. (They now constitute almost a third of the parliamentary party.)
Both Raab and Johnson loathe May’s deal, so there is space in the market for a pragmatic Brexiteer who can pose as a unifier. Allies of Andrea Leadsom suggest this could be her pitch; others point to Michael Gove, who is enjoying a renaissance after a string of barnstorming appearances at the despatch box.
With a range of Tories threatening to quit the party if an arch-Brexiteer takes over, running mates will also matter. Amber Rudd, who voted Remain but has said the next leader should be a Brexiteer, is seen as a potential kingmaker who could bring votes with her. She is close to Johnson and Gove. Allies suggest a ‘BAmber’ (Boris/Amber) ticket would be a formidable force.
If a snap election really is on the cards, the winning candidate is likely to be someone with a lot of experience rather than a fresh face.