Conservative Brexiters may sway the contest towards Andrea Leadsom

It is beginning to dawn that in the wake of the Brexit vote there will be no such thing as a return to business as usual in British politics.

But that’s not just because a prime minister has resigned, important though that is. Much more, it is because the full shock waves of the Brexit win have barely started to be felt.

We won’t see the same kind of drama this week that we saw two weeks ago when David Cameron quit after the referendum vote, or last week when Michael Gove turned against Boris Johnson in the fight to be Cameron’s successor. But the dynamics of the Conservative leadership race are not settled yet.

Theresa May enters the week of the first ballot in a commanding position to win first place in the contest among MPs. But the home ­secretary’s camp made clear over the weekend that she does not want a so-called coronation, as happened when Michael Howard succeeded Iain Duncan Smith unopposed in 2003.

She is right to prefer a contest because a coronation would look like a stitch-up. May backed remain in the referendum, albeit without any evident enthusiasm. She has gone into this contest, as she intended she would, as a Eurosceptic remainer, hoping that this will allow her to gather up votes from both wings of the party and succeed as a unity candidate.

So far it looks like a winning strategy. But a coronation would leave the Brexiters feeling betrayed, so May has to favour a full contest.

Such a contest is fraught with uncertainties. Fundamentally that is because the Conservative party’s membership, said to be about 150,000, will make the final decision between the two candidates left standing after the MPs’ ballot. But it is also because a two-horse race gives the second-placed candidate a huge chance to gather up the support of all those who have doubts about the frontrunner.

The party has form on this, and it is form that will give May the shivers. In 2001, the largely anti-European membership handed the prize to Duncan Smith rather than the frontrunner and ardent pro-European Kenneth Clarke. Even though May is not nearly as outspoken a pro-European as Clarke, she is vulnerable to the view among Brexiters that the crown should go to one of their own.

The crown this time, of course, is not the leadership of the opposition, as it was in 2001 when IDS was elected. It is the prime ministership itself. That could mean that the party members – who are not the same people as they were in 2001 anyway – are more cautious than they were 15 years ago, because they know the decision has national consequences. But it could equally mean that they decide it is vital to seize their chance and put a Brexiter into No 10.

As things stand, that candidate looks like Andrea Leadsom, the business minister, who has never sat at the cabinet table. Leadsom is not in fact an out-and-out anti-European. As she said in 2013, in words that have suddenly become famous: “I don’t think the UK should leave the EU. I think it would be a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving.” I can personally confirm from listening to her at about the same time that Leadsom was not in favour of leaving.

But if she can shake that embarrassment off her back she has a real chance of galvanising the Tory membership and overtaking May on the line. If that happened, not only would Leadsom become the first British prime minister in history elected by a party membership (as May would too, of course), but British politics would also be in uncharted waters for parliamentary democracy as a whole. Both the main parties, Labour and the Tories, would be led by people who would have been imposed on the party’s MPs against their will, or at least against their better judgment.

And that would be only the start. The leadership election will decide who speaks for Britain. But it won’t decide what Britain should say about its relationship with Europe. No one yet has a clue about that. Business as usual remains a very distant dream.

Powered by article was written by Martin Kettle, for The Guardian on Sunday 3rd July 2016 23.37 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010