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November 16, 2018

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The political dynamics of a Tory leadership election

Our main focus today is Brexit, following an extraordinary day in British politics. Theresa May is certainly one of the most stubborn political leaders we have ever encountered. She was hammered all day, starting with two cabinet resignations in the morning followed by an extremely hostile House of Commons at lunchtime. And there she was in the evening promising to fight on and see this through. There may be more cabinet resignations today. The BBC’s political editor was openly speculating whether May would soon be replaced as Tory leader. We cannot exclude that this might happen. But we also note that May's determination to take her Brexit process to the very end is absolute. If there is a Tory leadership election and she wins it by a single vote, she will declare victory and continue. Under the rules of such a contest she cannot be challenged for another year. This means that she could credibly threaten her MPs with new elections if they defeated her deal. They would then have no choice but to fight an election with her as leader - a suicide mission if there ever was one. This is what makes this likely leadership contest so important. If MPs support her, they will have to support her deal or risk losing their parliamentary seats. 

But precisely that prospect might persuade wavering Tory MPs to vote against her in what would be a secret ballot. We are in a gloves-off political contest, one of a very unusual kind even by the standards of UK politics. Our bet is that May will narrowly prevail. But we have to be mindful that there are a series of plots going on simultaneously. One is a backbench plot. Jacob Rees-Mogg sent in his letter of no-confidence, and he speaks for the 60-odd members of the European Research Group. They only need 48 letters to trigger an election, and they must be pretty close to that number. 

There is also talk of a plot by some of the ministers who have not yet resigned, possibly including Michael Gove. He was rumoured to be on the verge of quitting after he refusing to take over Dominique Raab’s Brexit job. Nothing happened overnight, but it could still happen today. If Gove were to resign from the cabinet and challenged May openly, a vote of no confidence could succeed.

What is also clear is that the Tory alliance with the DUP is over if May persists with her deal. New elections would thus be hard to avoid. A new leader would give the Tories more political options - either to leave without a deal, or to trigger elections and obtain a stronger majority. The trouble is that some of the Brexit-supporting newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, have now switched their support to Theresa May and her version of Brexit. We do not share the view that any of the plotters would stand a better chance of winning an election than May. She has become a much more accomplished political performer since the last election.

Theresa May and her Brexit deal thus come as a package deal. The Tories would commit political suicide if they kept her but rejected the deal. If this were to happen, we would expect Jeremy Corbyn to win an election and, as prime minister, accept Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with a different political declaration. It would be the ultimate irony.

Our other stories

We also have stories on why a no-deal is far more likely than a second referendum; on how to read yesterday’s market reactions; on the possibility of high drama at the November 25 Brexit summit; on Tsipras getting away with his pension proposals; and on Friedrich Merz falling behind.

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