EU view of Tory leadership candidates deeply critical, say sources | Politics


The EU has been on a Brexit break since the UK secured a six-month delay to its departure. With Theresa May soon to leave 10 Downing Street, Brussels is tuning in to the Westminster drama of the Tory leadership race – with both amazement and exasperation.

“People in Brussels are fed up that the political class in the UK has gone a little bit crazy,” Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the European council’s legal service said. British politicians seemed to have gone “on holiday”, since gaining the extension, he added.

For the EU, the bookies’ favourite Boris Johnson, is a Trumpian figure whose disputed claims and bombastic rhetoric played a major role in plunging the UK into what is seen in Brussels as the Brexit nightmare.

The former foreign secretary is remembered for his early 1990s stint as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, where he made his name mocking EU regulations, promoting what the European commission calls “Euromyths”. He achieved wider prominence for his claims during the EU referendum campaign. “He lied a lot to the British people,” said in 2016 the then French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

“The idea of Boris Johnson in the European council is probably quite abhorrent to some EU leaders,” an EU source said. “Boris is known in foreign policy circles, certainly not respected. He’s also seen as part of a wider Trump world and no one wants that.”

The EU’s most senior civil servant, Martin Selmayr, once described a Johnson premiership as a “horror scenario”, classing him with Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.

Martin Selmayr

#G7 2017 with Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Beppe Grillo? A horror scenario that shows well why it is worth fighting populism. #withJuncker

May 26, 2016

Many EU insiders think the chances of no deal have increased, with the Tory party expected to choose a Brexiter prime minister.

“For me it is very clear the odds of no-deal Brexit are more than half and clearly if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister the odds will go up again,” said Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP and member of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group.

Another favourite, Dominic Raab, is held in low-esteem in Brussels. During his four-month tenure as Brexit secretary, he lost trust of his EU counterparts. “He was seen to be working against his prime minister and making things up,” the first EU source said.

The European commission recently accused Raab of making “fraudulent” claims and spreading “pure disinformation” in a campaign video about the views of its secretary-general, Selmayr, on the future of Ireland.

Responding to unfavourable reports from Brussels, Raab told the Andrew Marr show that it “probably tells you that I was doing my job in terms of pressing them hard and making sure that Britain’s interests were resolutely defended”.

Candidates deemed compromise choices at Westminster have also inspired mistrust in Brussels. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is reported to have struck a different tone on Brexit with his EU counterparts than the public stance he takes in the UK. “He gave a very different impression than what he is suggesting now,” an EU diplomat said. More recently, Hunt has toned down his views on no deal, warning it would be “political suicide”.

EU officials expect Tory candidates will be falling over themselves to prove their hard Brexit credentials, following the party’s poor showing in the European elections where just four of its MEPs were elected and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party won the most votes. “The Tory party will be in survival mode and … will have to regain credibility as the party of Brexit,” another EU source said.

Michael Gove

The environment secretary is to pitch himself as a “unity candidate” capable of attracting leavers and remainers, as he formally declared his candidacy saying: “I believe that I’m ready to unite the Conservative and Unionist party, ready to deliver Brexit and ready to lead this great country.” But robust Brexiters in particular dislike the fact that he stayed loyal even in the final days of the crumbling May regime.

Matt Hancock

The health secretary remains a relative outsider, but the longer the race goes on, the more he gains ground for the seemingly basic virtues of being apparently competent and broadly similar to a normal human being, albeit a particularly energetic one. A concerted effort would probably require an image consultant.

Mark Harper

The former immigration minister and chief whip  was behind the controversial ‘go-home’ vans when working under Theresa May at the Home Office. He resigned as immigration minister in 2014after it emerged he was employing a cleaner who did not have permission to work in the UK. He later served as David Cameron’s chief whip. But he has not served in Theresa May’s government and has, therefore, sought to cast himself as the candidate who offers ‘fresh thinking.

Jeremy Hunt

Fears that the foreign secretary would be another overly woolly compromise choice were hardly assuaged when after a set-piece speech he seemed unable to outline why his brand of Conservatism might appeal to voters. Hunt has been backed by Liam Fox

Sajid Javid

The home secretary still has the same weaknesses: he is an uninspiring speaker and some worry he is too fond of headline-grabbing, illiberal political gestures. But he is almost as ubiquitous as Liz Truss, and clearly believes this is his time.

Boris Johnson

The out-and-out favourite, so popular with the Tory grassroots that it would be hard for MPs to not make Johnson one of the final two. He has been relatively quiet recently, beyond his regular Telegraph column, but this is very deliberate.

Andrea Leadsom

The former House of Commons leader, who left Theresa May as the last candidate standing when she pulled out of the previous leadership race in 2016, has decided to have another tilt at the top job, saying she has the “experience and confidence” to “lead this country into a brighter future”. But even with her staunch Brexiter tendencies, she would be seen as an outsider.

Esther McVey

The former work and pensions secretary, who quit last year over May’s Brexit plans, has launched her own in-party campaign group/leadership vehicle called Blue Collar Conservatism, promising to make the party more amenable to voters in deprived communities – mainly through a promise to deliver a strong Brexit and policies such as diverting much of the foreign aid budget to schools and police.

Dominic Raab

Few things say “would-be leader in waiting” like a kitchen photoshoot with your spouse, and the former Brexit secretary duly obliged with this imageawash with tasteful pastel hues. He formally launched his bid in the Mail on Sunday. Among the more core constituency of Conservative MPs, Raab has been pushing hard, as has his semi-official “Ready for Raab” Twitter feed.

Rory Stewart

The cabinet’s most recent arrival – Mordaunt’s promotion to defence led to Stewart becoming international development secretary – certainly has the necessary ambition and self-belief, plus a privileged if unorthodox backstory covering Eton, Oxford, a senior role in postwar Iraq and a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan. He remains an outsider, not least because of his remain tendencies and slightly 2010 view of compassionate Conservatism. He’s become a social media darling and been endorsed by Ken Clarke, but his reputation as ‘Florence of Belgravia‘ may hinder him.

For many, the leadership race is an unedifying fight for power, while the clock ticks down remorselessly to Brexit day on 31 October.

More governments are coming round to the tough position of French president Emmanuel Macron, who argued against a long extension, on the grounds that Brexit would become a damaging and distracting burden for the EU.

Donald Tusk, the European council president, helped persuade member states to back a longer extension, which he urged the UK not to waste.

“We were definitely on the other side of Macron,” the diplomat recalled. “Now I think Macron was right. We were wrong. Tusk was wrong.”

“[Macron] closed the door [to another extension] and it’s not shut, but the wind is blowing against it. And the harder Johnson’s rhetoric, and harder Raab’s rhetoric, the harder it is to open the door.”

Asked about the Tory contest last month, Tusk said there was “nothing promising” in “the state of affairs in London”.

Many in the EU would support an extension for what is known in Brussels as “a democratic event”, meaning a general election or a second referendum.

Without that, Piris thinks EU leaders could say no to a further extension. “But even if they say yes. What would happen? There is an inability to solve this question in the House of Commons.”

He stresses the Brexit conundrum is not down to an individual Tory leader. “It is a question of the political system of the UK being unable to answer to such a unique event in the life of the nation.”

Lamberts warns that nothing will change for May’s successor, as the EU will refuse to reopen the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop. “Anyone who steps into Downing Street will face exactly the same constraints. Saying you want to renegotiate this agreement is nice and well, but it won’t happen,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Tory contest is not keeping Brussels on the edge of its seat. “We really don’t care very much [who wins]” the diplomat said. “From an EU point of view, we would rather see someone that could deliver a smooth, orderly Brexit. Whether Johnson is going to be able to deliver it, the UK is going to have to ask itself.”

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