Resignations are the height of fashion at
the moment in Westminster, unless of
course you are the Labour leader, Jeremy
But as Nigel Farage announces his
departure, Tory MPs are now starting to
focus on who the best person will be to
pick up the pieces that have been thrown
up in the air after the referendum and
reshape them into a new-look Tory
government – and a team that can rework
our relationship with the rest of the
European Union.
Ironically today, it was the Outers –
Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea
Leadsom – who’ve been most willing to
give assurances that EU nationals who
already live here, can stay for good. Even
more ironic, it was Nigel Farage – who’s
spent his political career arguing to
reduce immigration – who called for all
the wannabe leaders to agree with him
that had to happen.
It’s Home Secretary Theresa May who
has been least willing to make any
promises. Despite one of her ministers
being given a hard time in the Commons
this afternoon to give that guarantee, her
supporters, like Foreign Secretary Philip
Hammond, say that in a complicated
negotiation, it’s not wise, or even realistic
to make any promises at all.
Strange times indeed though, when the
most Eurosceptic people in this race are
giving the firmest guarantees about
immigrants’ futures. It’s not really likely
that anyone would argue for, or accept an
end to, the rights of people already here to
stay. But May’s fans say it’s a mark of
her experience and pragmatism that she
won’t make promises she can’t keep, or
reveal what might be on or off the table in
EU talks.
Intriguingly, even though EU countries
have repeated time and again, that there
can be no talks until Article 50, the legal
mechanism for exit, is triggered, Philip
Hammond told me he’s already had
informal conversations with his
counterparts around the continent – once
they had got over their “shellshock” at the
Brexit vote. Indeed, he said that informal
talks could happen as early as next week.
For the first time, the five contenders for
the Conservative leadership appeared in
front of MPs tonight, eager to press their
case and sign up more supporters. And
according to MPs who were inside the
room, Mrs May who showed she was a
“class act”.
Andrea Leadsom, who has just received
the endorsement of Boris Johnson, might
have pleased a Eurosceptic Tory audience
this morning at her campaign launch in
Westminster, but her experience in the
crowded committee room tonight was
apparently anything but impressive. One
minister said “she totally crashed and
burned”, falling short of the expectation
that had been building, that as the darling
of the Brexiteers, she could become their
There’s chatter that Michael Gove, fresh
from what many see as his betrayal of
Boris Johnson, has pleased some MPs.
His team’s strategy is that they can scoop
up supporters of Liam Fox and Stephen
Crabb once they are knocked out or drop
out tomorrow. They believe that Mr Gove
might be able to get some people on side
because of his brain power and appetite
for reform. They know however that they
have a lot of persuading to do after his
behaviour last week.
One cabinet minister told me “Boris and
Michael have destroyed each other,”
another said, “He is damaged goods.”
Stephen Crabb, lesser known and lesser
experienced, “had his patter worked out”,
and performed well I’m told, although he
struggled to answer a question about how
he would confront the Russian leader,
Vladimir Putin. Sources say a response
that, “it’s not just about me, but the
team,” did not convince.
As for Liam Fox, one MP joked: “He went
on and on, and it reminded us why didn’t
win the last time.”
As MPs prepare to vote in the first
leadership ballot tomorrow, Tory minds
are starting to focus on what life, post-
David Cameron will look like. The
expectation is that the two names on the
ballot that goes to Tory party members
for the final decision will be Theresa May
and Andrea Leadsom.
But despite their victory 10 days ago that
will change the country, the Outers are
struggling to find a stand-out candidate.
Michael Gove’s standing after last week’s
Machiavellian moves has suffered.
Andrea Leadsom has a long way to go to
convince MPs and members that she is
ready for the job.
Right now it’s someone who was on the
losing side in the referendum, Theresa
May, that is well in front. But given how
quickly things have changed in
Westminster in just a few short days,
making any predictions is a risky game.