Kit Malthouse’s entry into the Conservative leadership contest has created quite a problem for the other candidates, not so much because he appears to offer a serious threat to the more established campaigns, but because he is the architect of the ‘Malthouse Compromise’, which once promised to solve all of Theresa May’s Brexit problems. The trouble with the Malthouse Compromise is that its name includes a now highly-toxic C-word. Theresa May used ‘compromise’ so much in the weeks before she finally gave up and announced she was resigning that no leadership candidate worth their salt wants to drop it into conversation now.
Even those who think that the best way through the Brexit deadlock really will involve a lot of compromise know they can’t use that word. ‘It’s too toxic now,’ says one leadership candidate. ‘You’ll hear us all trying to talk about how we are a pragmatic party instead, as otherwise we’ll just get members thinking about Theresa May, which isn’t going to help.’
Beyond language, the problem for the pragmatists is that they are having to fight a contest in which a number of the candidates are promising things that may not be possible. It’s not clear, for instance, whether it will be possible to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, or get a new deal by October, given the changes afoot in the European Commission. Jeremy Hunt, who has spent months pitching himself as a pragmatic ex-Remain convert to Brexit, has today had a go at the no-deal Brexit brigade, arguing that it would be ‘political suicide’ to leave without a deal, given it would lead to a general election. But he wants to change the withdrawal agreement, which other candidates say won’t be possible.
If you’re a candidate who wants to be honest with your party electorate about what any new leader can really achieve, what do you do? Politics at the moment thrives on promises without substance, making it that much harder to fight phantoms. So even trickier than avoiding the word ‘compromise’ is working out how to explain to the Tory membership that you’ve got the most realistic approach to the negotiations without putting them off entirely.