Brexit Brief: Hunting Season

Posted on 21st June 2019

It’s Boris v. Jeremy

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will face Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership contest. Johnson maintained a commanding lead across the five ballots of his parliamentary colleagues this week and last, finishing with 166 votes, more than half of votes cast. In the close battle for second, Hunt faced Environment Secretary Michael Gove, eventually besting him by a mere two votes. The final two now have a month to campaign across the country and persuade the 160 000 Conservative party members of their ability to lead the country as prime minister with the winner announced the week of 22 July.

New prime minister…

Johnson was a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum. In contrast, Hunt, originally a Remainer, briefly supported the notion of a second referendum but has since changed his position, asserting, like Johnson, no deal is better than no Brexit. Johnson was categorical that the UK would leave by 31 October but said he would not commit to a ‘guarantee’. Hunt, meanwhile, said no deal would be ‘political suicide’. Once elected by the party membership, both candidates have expressed their commitment to reopen negotiations with Brussels over the Withdrawal Agreement, particularly with regard to the Northern Irish backstop. While the EU maintains its firm refusal to renegotiate, Hunt may have a slightly warmer reception in Brussels than Johnson, whose time as foreign secretary and unpredictable nature risks distancing key policy-makers.

… but same quagmire

Whoever wins, they will face the same uphill battle in both London and Brussels: it’s near impossible to find a deal to satisfy Brussels, a majority of MPs, all while avoiding splitting the Conservatives. With the EU unlikely to support Johnson’s bid to remove the Northern Irish backstop and the Conservatives’ working majority (even with the DUP) becoming razor-thin — potentially thinner after an upcoming by-election — unlikely to accept the no-deal alternative or no-Brexit alternative, the possibility of a general election looms large.

Labour on the fence

The opposition faces its own internal tensions. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, is under increasing pressure from Leave-supporting and Remain-backing MPs to clearly outline the party’s position on a second referendum. Corbyn falls short of picking a side, reiterating his support for a public vote with “real choices” for both Leave and Remain voters. It is unclear what this means, but in the past certain elements of the party leadership have suggested the choice should be between a “credible Leave option” and Remain. Others may yet interpret it as remain v. no deal. Their ambiguous stance on Brexit saw many voters desert the party in the European elections and in opinion polls since. Some foresee the likely victory of Boris Johnson in the leadership contest as sufficient political cover to come out unequivocally for a referendum in an effort to avoid a no deal, perceived as more likely to become policy under Johnson than May, in line with party policy.

Brussels in gridlock

London will not yet find out who will become its principal interlocutors after a European Council summit failed to find consensus on who should fill the European Commission and European Council presidencies. The highly political races will include intensive negotiations until a deal is eventually made to satisfy the main parties, not unlike 2014. Leaders will attempt again on 30 June, just two days before the inaugural plenary session of the newly-elected parliament.

Back to document archive