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Who would be the best PM for Remainers? There’s no good answer – and one really bad one

If the UK is forced to endure another Tory government, is there anyone out there who might be willing to face facts on Brexit?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks back into 10 Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

It is a travesty that the Tory party is being given another chance to sift through its roster of “talentless people” – the disparaging words of one of its own – to choose another leader for a country brought to its knees by 12 years of Conservative policies and pathetic posturing.

But here we are. After Liz Truss became the latest Conservative PM to be publicly and painfully disabused of Messianic notions that she alone could deliver Britain into the Brexit promised land – notions that cost both the economy and British households dear – the race was on to find another Tory hustler to replace her in Airbnb’s top-rated London destination, 10 Downing Street.

But will any of the frankly underwhelming names from the Rogues’ Gallery of Tory also-rans have the wit, wisdom or willingness to do anything to address the now obvious damage being done to the UK’s economy by a Brexit that is, to all rational observers and even some hitherto irrational ones, tearing the very heart out of the economy?

The signs are not good.

At the time of writing, there was no official list of those who will battle it out for the leadership – a misnomer if ever there was one – over the next seven days. Or maybe there is a list on newly elevated home secretary Grant Shapps’ spreadsheet-enabled phone and maybe it even features his own name – or one of his names – at the very top.

But while Shapps may fancy himself among the runners and riders, one name was already rising to the top around Westminster on Thursday where brollies were being buffeted left and right by gusts of breathless breaking news.

And that name is Rishi Sunak. The former chancellor, who lost out to Truss a mere six weeks ago in the members’ vote but was the MPs’ favourite, has become something of a backbench Sphinx since his defeat – hidden in the shadows, rejoicing in the fact that all his predictions about the market meltdown that would greet Trussonomics came true.

Many see Sunak as a safe pair of hands but the former investment banker is also a staunch Brexiteer. He might be more fiscally cautious than Truss – then again, a five-year-old set loose in a sweet shop with her mother’s purse would be more fiscally cautious than Truss – but as a True Blue Brexit believer, there can be little hope that he will be clear-eyed, or humble, enough to acknowledge the part Brexit is playing in the decline of UK Plc.

Penny Mordaunt, who also stood for the leadership in the summer, is also touted as a possible candidate again. But she too is an ardent Brexiteer, and has described Britain’s exit from the EU as a “massive opportunity”.

Kemi Badenoch, another summer also-ran and now the international trade secretary, has been travelling the world trying to nail down some of those elusive trade deals that were going to be so easy to secure after the Brexit she supported. She’s described Britain as an island of “dynamism and ingenuity” like Manhattan, which suggests she may not be the one to own up to the mess that has been caused by Brexit.

Sajid Javid, a former chancellor and actually a Remainer, is being touted by some as a possible contender, but he has not declared yet and he did not stand in the summer contest. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, is also mentioned as a possibility. He too was a Remainer in 2016 but so far has shown little interest in the top job.

The nearly-worst case scenario for Remainers – and indeed for all those who value compassion, empathy and sanity – would be the elevation of former home secretary Suella Braverman. Ostensibly stepping down on Wednesday over an email-related security breach, her resignation letter laid into Truss by comparing her own decision to “accept responsibility” for her mistake to the then prime minister’s own consequence-free apology for tanking the economy. Less a mea culpa, and more a “look at me” from a woman who clearly still believes she is destined for greater things.

Braverman is the poster child for the hard right, ultra Brexiteer European Research Group, that amalgamation of all that is worst about the Tory party. The ERG’s obsession with a perfect and perfectly unachievable Brexit precludes all rational debate. If their preferred candidate gets in, don’t expect a lot of sensible, evidence-based policy-making.

But why, then, is Braverman only my nearly worst-case scenario, I hear you cry?

Well, although it seems implausible, not to say immoral, unthinkable and unendurable, the Telegraph was reporting on Thursday that Boris Johnson was considering another tilt at the Tory leadership. We can’t say we weren’t warned: remember how he compared himself to Cincinnatus in his farewell speech, a reference that sent hacks scrambling to Wikipedia and eventually to the realisation that this could be code for a desire to one day “lay down his plough” and return.

If it feels like the kind of possibility that might implode the time-space continuum or reverse the earth’s rotation, don’t despair. Yet. There is still the small matter of the privileges committee inquiry into whether Johnson misled parliament over Partygate, and that is not due to start for another few weeks. But if Johnson were to succeed in blustering his way back to power, there is little to no chance of any sensible policy-making on Brexit from a man who long ago lost the trust and respect of European interlocutors, not least because he keeps breaking his word.

It is worth noting that a poll earlier this week showed that most Conservative members wanted Johnson to return, although to be fair, it would be a brave person who would let them decide what to have for lunch at this stage.

What does all of this mean for policy? Truss went hell-for-leather for a free-market, libertarian fantasy that was sharply slapped down by those markets she worshipped. Her new chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who is not standing to be leader to the great relief of tongue-twisted reporters everywhere, seems to be signalling a return to the kind of austerity that contributed to the Brexit vote in the first place.

It seems almost quaintly naive to wonder which of those two diametrically opposed policies has a popular mandate because who the hell knows what the next anointed Tory leader will choose to foist on his or her long-suffering people? Mandate, schmandate.

Obviously, the best PM for Remainers would be Keir Starmer. Even if he is still wary of the “B” word, the Labour Party leader’s views are evolving and who knows where they could eventually end up. He is, at least, not viscerally opposed to reviewing empirical evidence.

Starmer is calling for a general election and an end to the “soap opera” and “revolving door of chaos” caused by the Tory party but it’s not yet clear how we can get the turkeys to vote for their own Christmas. Callous, cunning and talentless though many of the Tories in power may be, they are not, unfortunately, stupid. And they have read the latest polls that show them potentially losing hundreds of seats at the next vote.

In the end, there is no good answer to the question of which Tory PM would be best for Remainers. There are only bad answers and then worse answers. And then, Boris Johnson.

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