LONDON - The race to succeed the Brexit-fouled Theresa May as Conservative party leader and the country’s prime minister got underway Saturday in earnest, two days after Britain’s governing party suffered one of its worst ever humiliations in a parliamentary by-election.
The Conservative leadership contest risks deepening the rift in the party over when, how or even if to leave the European Union — with a few of the nearly dozen contenders ruling out serving in a future cabinet — if they are vanquished and lose out to a rival.
Some Conservative lawmakers and activists fear the party is in the grips of an existential crisis and could be permanently sundered by Brexit — easily split in two. That would leave the way open for Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, to win the next general election. Some observers suspect that poll will have to be held later this year because of the long-running parliamentary deadlock over Brexit.
“The future survival of the Conservative party is at risk,” according to onetime deputy prime minister Damian Green.
On Friday, May formally quit as party leader without fanfare or ceremony, sad testimony to a ruined and brief premiership that was buffeted from the start by the challenge of pulling off Brexit. She broke all records with the number of ministers who quit her government during her less than three years at Downing Street .
She held no public events Friday and remained secluded in her constituency in southern England, with the country’s newspapers having to make do with a blurred photograph of her being driven away from Downing Street.
She left her role just as the scale of the setback the Conservatives suffered midweek in a by-election in the English market town of Peterborough sank in. Labour managed to hold the seat by a wafer-thin majority of 683 votes with a candidate who’s been accused of anti-Semitism. The Conservatives saw a 25-percent drop in voter share
The Conservatives weren’t the runners-up in a constituency they have only lost control of three times since 1880. The eight-week-old Brexit Party of Nigel Farage came second, attracting the backing of thousands of Conservative defectors. It also is raising the specter of being able to do so in other marginal constituencies up and down the country, dooming the Conservatives in a future general election.
Although Farage celebrated the result for his party, which won 29 seats in last month’s European Parliament elections, trouncing both the Conservatives and Labour, the outcome in Peterborough wasn’t entirely good news for the Brexit party either.
Peterborough voted by an overwhelming majority for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. So if Farage’s party can’t win a British parliamentary seat in Peterborough, it augers badly, according to some pollsters, for it to actually capture seats elsewhere.
Farage had clearly thought Peterborough would mark a triumphant entry for the Brexit Party into the House of Commons.
May will remain in office as a powerless caretaker prime minister until the leadership election is concluded likely late next month. After that she’ll be “another portrait on the Downing Street staircase, cruelly remembered as the prime minister who failed to deliver Brexit and left her party on the brink,” according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s associate editor, Camilla Tominey.
Former foreign minister Boris Johnson is seen by the bookmakers — and many party activists — as the favorite in the race, which now features 11 candidates. New party rules designed to speed up the race means that number could be reduced to six by Monday. Johnson was seen three years ago as a shoo-in to replace David Cameron, but he lost out to May. That was partly thanks to the defection of his Brexit ally Michael Gove, who withdrew as his campaign manager, and stood against him, saying his friend and Oxford University contemporary was unfit for the highest office.
Gove, a brainy politician with greater ministerial experience than Johnson, is running again and is seen by some party insiders as the dark horse in the heated contest. The other strong contenders are the current foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, who’s running on his businessman credentials and positioning himself as a compromise candidate, and Dominic Raab, a former Brexit minister, who’s trying to compete with Johnson as the most muscular and hardline Brexiter.
Raab has provoked a fierce political dispute after saying midweek he wouldn’t rule out suspending parliament for several weeks if he wins, in order to force through Britain’s departure from the EU, whether the country has a finally agreed to withdrawal agreement or not.
Suspending parliament — officially it would be called proroguing — would render lawmakers powerless and unable to vote to block the government from leaving the EU on the latest departure deadline of October 31.
Such a bid would trigger a constitutional crisis, drawing the queen into party politics as her approval would first have to be secured. The idea has been denounced by other contenders, both Brexiters and Europhiles.
Rory Stewart, a candidate in the race, said such a suspension would be “unlawful, undemocratic and unachievable.” Amber Rudd, a current pensions minister and a Europhile, said, "I think it’s outrageous to consider proroguing parliament,” citing King Charles I, who shuttered parliament in the 17th century, triggering a civil war.
Rabb’s supporters argue the move would help “save parliament from itself,” insisting parliament has been blocking the will of the people by failing to observe the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and seeking delays.
May concluded a withdrawal agreement with the EU last November after two years of ill-tempered haggling with Brussels, but parliament has withheld its approval of the exit deal. Europhiles, who favor continued participation in the European Union, fear it doesn’t keep Britain tied closely enough to the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner, while hardline Brexiters, who want a sharp break with the EU, argue it would turn Britain into a “vassal state.”