Will the Conservative leadership race run the UK out of the single market?

How the leadership battle could leave the next Prime Minister committed to leaving the single market


Today has been one of the most eventful days in British politics with the direction of the Conservative leadership election shifting dramatically. This shift is likely to have a significant impact on the  UK’s future relationship with the EU and its future in the single market.

At what was planned as his campaign launch this morning, Boris Johnson, the hitherto frontrunner in the race, dramatically announced that he wasn’t standing for the leadership after all. This was followed the morning’s announcement that Michael Gove was withdrawing his support from Johnson and running himself.

The leak of Sarah Vines’ email, questioning Boris Johnson’s commitment to deliver Brexit and fulfilling Gove’s desire to  end of the jurisdiction of EU law in the UK, can be seen as the start of these incredibly dramatic 24 hours. The email seemed to confirm worries among some Brexit supporters with in the Conservative Party and the media that Johnson wasn’t fully committed to leading the UK out of the EU.

The concern was that Johnson still believed in the double referendum strategy that he had supported last year. This strategy would use a no vote in a referendum to reopen negotiations with the EU, force their hand and get a more attractive deal than what was initially offered in renegotiation. Johnson was reported as saying “You have to show them that you are serious.”

Boris Johnson started the week as the triumphant leader of the Leave campaign, and in many eyes the likely next Prime Minister. His first substantive statement since the referendum was set out in an article in the Daily Telegraph, titled: ‘I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe – and always will be’. He claimed that the UK would be able to remain in the single market, but without any of the obligations that came with it.

This raised questions amongst Remain supporting MPs about his credibility. Among  Brexit supporting MPs it raised concerns that, when push came to shove, Johnson would abandon pledges made in the campaign about controlling migration in return for a deal on single market access.

The events of today mean that the future for the UK in the single market is now much more in question.

Jeremy Hunt, the only presumptive candidate to talk explicitly about the possibility of a second referendum to secure some changes to freedom of movement while maintaining single market access, left the race. Johnson has now departed, and hard-line Brexiteers Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox have entered.

The centre of gravity of the debate within the Conservative Party has therefore shifted considerably.

Liam Fox has explicitly said:  “I don’t believe the British public would accept the free movement in return for access to the single market. We need to have a more free-trade approach.”

Gove’s unwillingness to see any jurisdiction of the EU legal system in the UK would require exit from the single market.

Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, and main supporter of Stephen Crabb, had told business earlier in the week that single market access need to be a priority. This afternoon, however, Jeremy Wright, the current Attorney General, and also a Crabb supporter, made it clear that Crabb would not be willing to compromise on freedom of movement in return for access to the single market

Theresa May made her commitment to Brexit clear this morning by saying “Brexit means Brexit” and promising to set up a new Government department focused on delivering it. Her team haven’t yet been clear about what sort of access to the single market they envision for the UK, but she has been clear about her desire for changes to freedom of movement.

The danger is that if there is no movement from other member states with an acceptable compromise on freedom of movement, we will end up with the next Prime Minister being committed to exit from the single market, without any firm or workable plans for an alternative.

As the race intensifies over the coming days and weeks, there is a danger of a ‘beggar my neighbour’ series of commitments from the Conservative leadership contenders on restricting immigration. If the final two candidates includes one who is prepared to compromise to preserve single market access and one who is not, the risk is Conservative Party members might chose the harder line of the two

Businesses which have assumed that single market access would be secure, even if the UK voted to leave the EU, need to sit up, take notice and make their voices heard.