However, both candidates are promising things that the evidence of the past two years suggests are impossible.
Vague policy, flawed logic
Officials at all levels of the EU have been consistent in saying that this is not going to happen. And the EU has been remarkably consistent on its red lines during the whole Brexit process.
In the likely event that no concessions will be made to the deal — formally called the Withdrawal Agreement — both Johnson and Hunt say they are willing to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. This is an extraordinary thing to say, when you consider that Hunt only this week said that he knew that doing so would cost jobs.
Remarkably, these claims have not attracted the scrutiny one might hope, given the gravity of the situation. Instead, the candidates have been able to present vague policy and flawed logic on why they will make the EU budge as concrete reasons that they are the right person to lead the UK through its most serious crisis since World War II.
Johnson seems to think that his charm, enthusiasm and popularity will be enough to open up the negotiations; Hunt thinks that his history as an entrepreneur means he has a track record of brokering deals. Meanwhile, the EU looks on in astonishment.
It’s not just the leadership hopefuls, nor the hardline Brexiteers, who are living in this parallel universe.
The continuity-remainers who regret that Brexit ever happened and want to scrap it are entering their final push to convince the official opposition Labour party to back a second referendum. There’s two problems here. First, the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his hard-left inner circle, are not exactly enamored with the European Union. Corbyn, it mustn’t be forgotten, voted to leave the European Economic Community (which became the European Union) in 1975.
Second, while everyone in this bitterly divided nation can point to opinion polls that back up their preferred outcome, the reality is that polling on a binary question is difficult. However, if you look at the most recent national election results in the UK, the picture is clear.
In last month’s EU elections, both Labour and the Conservatives finished behind the pro-no deal Brexit party (30.5% of the vote) and the pro-remain Liberal Democrats (19.6%).
So, with no hard evidence that remain could win a second referendum, continuing to oppose the only deal that the UK and EU have put on the table only serves to delay Brexit and leave everything murky. All of which makes a no-deal crash out on October 31 more likely.
If a no-deal Brexit is as catastrophic as predicted, this could create a perfect storm of job losses, citizens unable to pay off their debts and the economy tanking. This in turn, could lead to a run on the pound and interest rates rising — which is bad news for those with large debt.
But no one is talking about this. Instead, the nation is in denial, trapped in its Brexit paralysis and chest beating over the politics of the situation.
It’s all getting very serious as the Halloween deadline approaches. The reality is that without a public vote Brexit cannot be stopped, that without changes to the Brexit deal it will not pass through parliament and that the EU is still not willing to make changes.
However, what might be possible is the new prime minister selling a fudge. The EU wants the UK to leave with a deal. Contrary to what many remainers believe, the EU’s preferred option is that the UK leaves under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, then the two sides can talk about a future trading relationship. It’s here that the new PM might be able to get concessions from Europe, then try to sell those concessions as a huge victory to parliament.
It will be difficult, and it could become very messy. If a Brexiteer like Johnson ultimately ends up trying to pass Theresa May’s deal, the sense of betrayal among hardliners will be palpable. But right now, the UK’s options are limited.