Scale of Brexit task facing future PM

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt Image copyright PA wire

Who on earth would wish to be Britain's next prime minister at a time like this?

Silly question, really.

The answer's Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and a cricket team-sized contingent of Conservatives who failed to make the cut.

What's maybe more puzzling is why - and more particularly, why either man should be so desperate to land a job that seems as likely as not to add their names to the list of Tory prime ministers destroyed by the UK's relationship with Europe, and helpless to arrest their party's steady descent into addictive self-harm.

The answer, of course, is ambition.

Jeremy Hunt clearly has more of it than many supposed.

Boris Johnson's been tormented for years by the thought that he might land the top job and with it a duty to guide the country through the maze-with-no-exit that Brexit has become.

Testimony from well placed, authoritative players for the BBC's Panorama programme, have shown the scale of that task to be even more daunting than it seemed before, as if that were possible.

Both men say their first task on taking office would be to try to get the Brexit deal which fatally eluded Theresa May.

Boris Johnson insists he'd deliver Brexit on 31 October with a deal if need be; Jeremy Hunt says he'd maybe take a little longer, but won't say for how long.

But the Defence Minister, Tobias Ellwood, told me there were easily enough ministers and MPs prepared to take any step, even withhold support from the government in a vote of confidence before they acquiesced in a no-deal Brexit.

I asked him: "Are the numbers there to stop a no deal on 31 October. Maybe using a vote of no confidence in the government?"

His answer: "That absolutely is the case. About a dozen or so members of Parliament on our side would be voting against supporting a no deal. And that would include ministers as well as back benchers."

I understand the potential rebels and MPs have been regularly meeting in secret, discussing their options online using WhatsApp.

These options include picking ministers to help defeat the government; or perhaps a larger number abstaining on a confidence vote. Sympathetic cabinet ministers have kept in touch. Mr Ellwood has made it clear he would not walk through the voting lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn. He has not yet committed himself to any course of action, though his hostility to the option of a no deal Brexit is plain.

Potential rebels are hoping the mere threat of defeat might force a new PM to think again. So either candidate could face a defining crisis if negotiations in Europe fail and he goes for a no-deal Brexit. The potential danger is probably greater for Boris Johnson.

The frontrunner has not yet won the contest. Before he does, if he does, he'll face intense scrutiny of his judgement, character, his well-documented personal life and his political record.

In another interview, a Johnson supporter, Tory MP Jonny Mercer spelled out the judgement others have expressed only in private: that Mr Johnson's appeal to them as a political winner - one capable of seeing off Nigel Farage's Brexit Party on one side and Jeremy Corbyn on the other has trumped very real doubts about his suitability to lead the country.

He told me: "Boris Johnson will have his own risks that others will not have. I totally understand that people can look at it's a matter of public record aspects of Boris Johnson's character or his judgement, but for me it's actually quite simple because what we do up here has to been something, we have to put a premium on a winning elections, delivering things for people who vote for us.

"And I think the best way to do that at the moment is to try and shape a Boris Johnson premiership."

Despite the flurry of negative publicity about the domestic row between Mr Johnson and his partner, and the fresh debate about his character, it's fair to say Boris Johnson is still the favourite; that the contest is probably still his to lose.

But there's more of a sense now that Jeremy Hunt could yet give Boris Johnson more of a fight than anyone imagined just a short while ago.

Mr Johnson will be scrutinised and tested during the weeks of this leadership contest. So will both men's plan to deliver Brexit.

No-one can predict the outcome of that trial with any certainty. If anything's clear at all, it's that the winner's campaign promises, even his ability to carry on in office could be tested to destruction very soon after he crosses the threshold into Downing Street.

Did I say "winner"? I suppose we'll see.

The Race For Number 10 is on Panorama, on 24 June at 20:30 BST.

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