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Alex Bell: Is Brexit Britain ready for a prime minister who isn’t white?

Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.
Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.

Britain’s first prime minister appointed after Brexit could have brown skin. No one saw that coming.

First, though, the assassination of Boris Johnson.

If forensics swabbed the knife in his back, they could build a DNA database of the entire Conservative Party.

Journalism needs leaks. Politicians revealing secrets is a healthy part of our democracy – things get out into the light of day. It’s one of the ways the all-controlling SNP hold power; no leaks gives the impression of competence.

But this many leaks at once? That stinks of deliberation.

A tip-off reveals there is a WhatsApp group dedicated to promoting Liz Truss as an alternative prime minister. Another sends the Mirror’s political correspondent down the trail of Downing Street Christmas parties. A third puts ITV on to the existence of video showing Allegra Stratton garroting her career.

It is usually best to favour the cock-up explanation in politics. This is the exception: a conspiracy driven by Tory right wingers, which others in the party are happy to support.

So up pops Liz Truss on a tank, looking like a rag doll Thatcher, and profusely denying any ambition. Here’s Rishi Sunak, pledging he’s for low tax – hinting it was bad Boris who pumped up the spending.

Douglas Ross can barely contain his judgement, and Ruth Davidson is long past caring about the PM.

And now we have a massive Commons rebellion against Johnson’s Covid restrictions, alongside yet more revelations about the Christmas parties.

Boris Johnson remains as PM – but his days are numbered

At the time of writing, Boris Johnson is still in office. That will not last.

More things will leak, more support will drain from him, talk of rivals will increase.

Back in 2018, Johnson tried to stage his own coup against Theresa May. Begun at breakfast, it was dead by lunch.

As foreign secretary, Boris Johnson was an arch critic of Theresa May’s Brexit plans (Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire)

In contrast, this insurrection will go all the way.

The public are turning. No longer Boris the lad, but Boris the liar. It was always a thin line between the two, and it has been crossed.

So, minds turn to who the next Tory leader will be, and how they will sum up the state of post-Brexit Britain.

First let’s dismiss the Number 10 no-hopers

Liz Truss is a non-starter. A useful character to deploy at this stage, allowing people to imagine life beyond Boris, but of no popular appeal. Not much depth or skill, either.

Given that the next prime minister needs to win an election within the Tory party in order to hold the post, Truss can never be considered a front runner. She doesn’t have the support.

Distrusted by both Brexiteers and remainers, for serial feebleness, Truss will not be the next PM.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid updates MPs on the latest coronavirus plans on December 14. Is he a candidate to replace Boris Johnson? Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor /PA Wire

Dominic Raab will think he’s a dark horse. Unfortunately, the rest of the party have him down as a donkey.

Michael Gove has the talent and seriousness, but lacks the popular touch. Granted, dancing in an Aberdeen nightclub humanised him, but he’s a series of Strictly away from being loved.

Which leaves Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak or Priti Patel.

Two out of three ain’t bad

Of those, Patel doesn’t have it.

Her trip to Israel which broke ministerial rules remains a mysterious episode, and her current performance over channel migrants has been disastrous. She has united xenophobes and liberals against her.

She also carries a vaguely sinister air about her. Which is good for crime bosses, less so for democratic politicians.

And, so, there are two.

It’s best to remember that in Tory leadership races, the front candidates rarely win, nor do the best ones.

Michael Portillo and Ken Clarke both failed. Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May somehow won. It’s never wise to predict the outcome.

However, this time it could come down to everyone’s favourite billionaire, Rishi Sunak, or the guy you could talk to in the pub, over an orange juice, Sajid Javid.

Will a leadership contest put Britain’s record on race to the test?

It’s not quite our Obama moment. Britain doesn’t compare to the institutional oppression of Black citizens of the USA, but ours is still significant.

But is it a symbol of our post-empire future as a tolerant society? A fascinating event, given the British nationalist undercurrent of Brexit.

Whoever the next PM is, they will have the job of summarising where Britain stands.

We can’t avoid a discussion on race, nor deny our failings on the matter

The Northern Ireland protocol is in dispute. The UK’s borders are still an issue. Migrants are resisted, but a labour shortage is stopping growth, and higher wages are contributing to inflation.

The next Tory prime minister will need an assessment of Brexit and a vision for Britain which is currently lacking. Perhaps surprisingly, it will have to be more international and inclusive than anyone might have thought a few years ago. Especially if the candidate has brown skin.

The shires struggled with Meghan Markle’s ethnicity, and at least some of the Brexit appeal was about a “return” to sentimental England.

We can’t avoid a discussion on race, nor deny our failings on the matter.

Boris joshed that Brexit was Britain’s Independence Day. It will be instructive to see if those who agreed can welcome our first prime minister who is not white.


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