The next Tory leader is doomed before they have even started
The parties of the Westminster establishment are terrified of us…. The Brexit Party is here to stay and to change politics for good.”
With those triumphant words delivered after the European election results, Nigel Farage made public the worst-kept secret in Westminster: that his Brexit Party did not intend to be a one-hit wonder, as had been wistfully hoped for by much of the political class.
Never short on hubris about his ability to deliver change, Farage has nonetheless successfully lit the blue touchpaper on Westminster politics as we have known it. For while he now retreats to a safe distance to shout from the sidelines, the slow-burning fuse he has set will detonate its payload on 31 October.
Should Brexit not happen by this date, or should the manner of the departure be anything short of the “clean Brexit” that the Faragists have demanded, expect the resulting explosion to alter much of our political landscape.
The “stab in the back” mythology that the Brexit Party has already encouraged in its short history, waxing lyrically about the betrayal of the people by the entire political class, will be deployed to devastating effect once more in both eventualities.
Either the politicians will have refused outright to carry out the wishes of the people, or they will have connived to stitch up a “Brexit in name only”.
In each case, the Brexit Party can emerge with a sizeable chunk of the public vote. This will almost certainly be enough to deny the Conservative party a future overall majority in a General Election.
It is unlikely that the soon-to-be-departing incumbent of the 10 Downing Street bunker recognises any of this. But her putative successors as Prime Minister should.
Worryingly, they appear intent on making similar mistakes.
The Tory leadership candidates can roughly be split into two groups.
The no-dealers start with an advantage: their approach has the benefit of appealing to the mass of Conservative members who will elect their leader.
But once in office, a stark reality will hit home. The only Brexit proposal that parliament has been able to muster a majority for has been against the idea of no-deal.
Absent a change of personnel in the House of Commons, that situation will not alter. It will probably spark a successful vote of no confidence against a government pushing such an agenda.
A General Election to reshuffle the pack of MPs will not provide any guarantee of success either. Opinion polls show that support for no-deal is a minority position in the country. A Conservative party running on that platform may be able to negate the Faragist threat, but it will simultaneously forfeit the support of all other shades of opinion. That is not a winning strategy.
Nor can negotiated-deal leadership contenders derive much comfort. This group appear to have fallen prey to the mythology that better terms can somehow be extracted from the EU. They cannot.
The EU is adamant that there can be no changes to the withdrawal agreement. Even if there could be, the only direction of travel would be to closer EU harmonisation.
A negotiated-deal Prime Minister would end up in the same position as Theresa May, and face the same ignominious result. A General Election under such circumstances would be a grim prospect, with both the Faragists and the Remainers running rampant.
For it has now become clear that, despite his own personal desire to secure Brexit and achieve a form of socialist nirvana that EU rules make impossible, Jeremy Corbyn will be under intense pressure to swing Labour to a de facto Remain position by supporting the idea of a second referendum.
The Labour party’s deplorable election performance has shown that attempting to straddle all positions on the Brexit question is doomed to failure. Although it also lost votes on the Leave side of its support base, being outflanked by the resurgent Liberal Democrats on the Remain side of the equation has shown the party where its bread needs to be buttered.
Being as stubborn in his own way as May, Corbyn may not heed this lesson. But if he does not, Labour will be laid to waste in a similar manner to the Conservatives in any Brexit-inspired election.
Of course, there remains an obvious way out of this version of political apocalypse now. Rather than try to pass a deal through a parliament comprised of shades of grey, or gamble the entire country on red or black in an election, we could ask the people again.
Every party and individual MP would finally be free to back the option they really believed in.
But holding a clearly defined referendum would also serve a greater process. It would prevent the most divisive issue of our day from contaminating the entire political system, by giving the power of decision back to where it started: the people.
In so doing, it would also break the hold of the Faragists as they would now be cast back into the single issue from where they emerged.
The British people are perfectly capable of passing judgement on negotiated-deal, no-deal and remain options if placed before them.
If only a Conservative leadership candidate or Corbyn were brave enough to let them do so.