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Leadership debate reveals more than expected

At last the remaining candidates for the leadership of the Conservative party all took part in a BBC debate, including Boris Johnson, the front runner. Hitherto he has remained aloof to avoid gaffes that might lose him support.

It was a frustrating debate, from which none of the five candidates emerged as the obvious winner. All five accepted the referendum result but none of them succeeded in giving satisfactory answers to the remaining obstacles to an orderly exit from the EU.

The most obvious obstacle is whether or not a satisfactory deal can be found and agreed with the EU by 31st October. Only Sajid Javid said he was willing to leave on that date even if no deal had been reached. Previously Johnson has said the same but last night he failed to guarantee he would do that, suggesting that the EU would let us leave without a backstop in Northern Ireland despite the fact that EU negotiators have repeatedly said they would not. Gove, Hunt and Stewart would all be prepared for a short extension if we were on the cusp of a satisfactory deal.

Jeremy Hunt challenged Johnson about a ‘no deal’ Brexit, citing the case of a Shropshire sheep farmer he had met who would be hit by crippling tariffs if we leave the EU without a deal. He would tell Johnson “you got your dream of getting into Number 10, but what about my dream to have a family business?”

Only Stewart was clear that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would never be approved by the House of Commons, which has rejected it twice. He remained loyal to the deal proposed by Theresa May and was reminded that it had been rejected three times by the House of Commons. The elimination of Dominic Raab before the debate removed the threat of proroguing Parliament to force a ‘no deal’ Brexit from the debate.

Johnson drew back from his intention to raise the threshold for the 40p rate of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000. Gove strongly attacked this and said his priority would be to cut taxes on the poorest not the well-off. Stewart was against any tax cuts and in favour of increased spending on education, health and other key public services. He sees that as the best way to help the poorest.

None of the five candidates came over as convincing potential Prime Ministers, but a new poll by YouGov suggests that this will not bother a majority of party members who seem to be willing to do almost anything to ensure we leave the EU on 31st October, including the destruction of their own party. 61% want Brexit even if it causes “significant damage to the economy”.  A similar percentage are willing to see Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK if they are obstacles to Brexit. Even more shocking is the 54% who would rather see their party destroyed than the UK remaining in the EU. Nearly half of the party’s members would rather have Nigel Farage as their leader than any of the five candidates. That suggests the Conservative party could be heading for a break up and cease to be a party of government for the foreseeable future.

Brexit has divided the nation, more deeply than any other issue in modern history. A wise Bishop has likened this division to the period in biblical history when Jewish exiles were returning to their homeland from Babylon and having to interact with those who had never been taken away. If there is to be a healing of the nation, it won’t come from whoever wins this contest. It will come from whoever casts a new vision of the UK as a nation under God that plays its part in world affairs, working for peace and justice in a spirit of servanthood rather than nationalist pride and arrogance.

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