EUROPE has destroyed the careers, and blighted the last years, of every Conservative Prime Minister of the last three decades: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and now Theresa May.

Who would be foolhardy enough to take on the poisoned chalice? Well, it seems there are countless Conservatives in the running: 15, 18, 20 or more names are coming forward.

Although Britain doesn’t have time to spare, the Conservatives do need to take the time to ensure they choose the right leader. Many of the seeds of Mrs May’s failure were sown because of her coronation when Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the race to succeed Mr Cameron due to her injudicious comments about motherhood.

As a result of her anointment, Mrs May’s vision of Brexit was never explained – who knows what she meant when she kept saying “Brexit means Brexit”. Brexit means different things to different people.

And as a result, the Tories themselves didn’t know whether Mrs May could fight a proper political battle. They found out when she called the snap election that she was a wooden, robotic performer who was unable to connect with ordinary voters, and so she lost her majority and became, in the memorable words of George Osborne, “a dead woman walking”.

This last point is now more important than ever. If there were to be a general election tomorrow, it would be leave versus remain, and the newly-formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, would scoop up the leave voters from the Tories. So who is best placed to tackle the ebullient, straight-talking and milkshake-wearing Mr Farage?

Can you imagine the remainer-turned-Brexiteer Jeremy Hunt taking him on? Or the studious Rory Stewart? Or the flaky Liz Truss?

Boris Johnson is now the Tories’ biggest show pony. For all his buffoonish tendencies, for all his failings as Foreign Secretary, for all the suspicion that he believes in nothing but himself, he could restore the Tories’ faith in themselves as a party, and North-East watchers will be interested to note that he has apparently appointed the former Stockton South MP James Wharton as his campaign manager.

The Conservative MPs will have to whittle down the countless contender to just two who will then go to the party membership to choose the winner. There are about 120,000 members, with an average age of between 65 and 75. They are regarded as being pro-Brexit no-dealers who adore the stage charisma of Mr Johnson.

But just as the country is deeply divided, so is the Conservative Party. The MPs who will select the final two do not trust Mr Johnson and, by and large, want a Brexit deal. Will they allow Mr Johnson to reach the final two?

The contest looks likely to last a couple of months. This gives time for an unheralded candidate to slip past the favourite – in 2005, the young David Cameron started behind the experienced David Davis but eventually romped to victory – and it gives Mr Johnson time to shoot himself in the foot. He is gaffe-prone, and a smirking comment – he described Mrs May’s Chequers deal as a “suicide vest” tied around the British constitution – could blow up in his own face.

Who might give Mr Johnson a run for his money? Mr Hunt fancies himself. Dominic Raab is a presentable, next-generation Brexiteer. Penny Mordaunt is quietly tipped. Steve Baker could be the acceptable face of the hardline European Research Group (ERG) in a way Jacob Rees-Mogg isn’t. Sir Graham Brady, former chairman of the backbench committee, is a surprising early runner who must have solid party support. Perhaps whoever the formidable Amber Rudd backs will have to be taken seriously. It is wide open.

And yet it will solve nothing. A new leader will have new momentum. A Brexiteer leader will have the numbers of the ERG behind them. But Parliament will still be hung, unless there is a general election – and that may not improve the mathematics because the country is so divided.

Mrs May’s painful end does not mean we have reached the end of the mess. It is not even the beginning of the end of the mess. The mess has ended the reign of the latest leader and now, messier than ever, it is looking for its next victim.