And then there were two. The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is down to its final candidates. Heavily-favored Boris Johnson will face the surprising Jeremy Hunt, who took Johnson’s job as Foreign Secretary when he resigned in protest of May’s Brexit deal. The winner will be decided by the party’s 160,000 grassroots members some time late next month. It is a contrast in styles, abilities, and Brexit itself.
Johnson’s challenger was supposed to be Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who scuttled Johnson’s previous bid for the Tory leadership against Theresa May. Gove led Hunt until the penultimate ballot, but was overtaken for second place. Hunt warned Tory MPs before the last vote not to reignite the “personal psychodrama” between Gove and Johnson, which might have tipped the scales. Or, it might have had something to do with Gove’s admission he used cocaine during the 1990s. Whatever the reasons, it appears some tactical voting took place within the Conservative caucus.
Hunt, referred to as “Theresa in trousers” by some Tory MP’s, is a decided underdog against Johnson. He brings a technocratic approach to the race, with emphasis on experience in more than one senior ministerial portfolio, and a consensual style of leadership. The latter is important, as the Conservatives have a shaky minority government in the Commons. Thus, any Brexit deal would need the support of at least one other party. He also, like May, voted Remain in the referendum. Many within the Tory base want a leader who has been an early devotee to Brexit, not a recent, reluctant convert, like May. It’s all these reasons why the Johnson camp believes Hunt is easier to defeat than Gove would have been.
For better or worse, Johnson is a known quantity, on both the national and international stage. As the leader of Leave within the Conservative camp, Johnson is committed to getting out by Halloween, whether a deal with the European Union exists or not. It’s his style for which he is most known, a definite asset among Tories, for when he’ll have to go to the country, in or before 2022. His liberal stances on social issues might also help the Conservatives appeal to the broader electorate when campaign season comes. Thus, in contrast to the traditional American candidate dichotomy, Johnson appears to be most committed to the cause (Brexit) and the most electable.
Of course, whoever becomes Prime Minister will be inheriting a bigger mess than just about any in recent memory. It would take the skills of a Machiavelli to either get a new deal out of Brussels, or get the old one through Westminster. The question of what to do about Northern Ireland is the sticking point, with no options acceptable to anybody, and for different reasons for everybody. Boris Johnson has always wanted this job. He may yet get it, good and hard.