On your marks, get set, go! Theresa May’s announcement in May 2019 to resign as Prime Minister of Britain once her successor has been elected caused a staggering number of Tory MPs to line up for the Conservative Party leadership election 2019. Ten candidates in total were willing to take a shot at running the country (for comparison, five candidates were running for the last Tory leadership election in 2016). This is quite surprising, given that the UK is currently facing one of the biggest political crises in decades. Whoever takes the reigns of power from May will have their hands full, governing a divided party which will then go on to run a divided country. But it is also a unique opportunity to secure a top spot in the history books as the PM who took Britain out of the EU, right next to the infamous Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher who took Britain into the then EEC on 1 January 1973.
The first ballot (there were five rounds of voting in total) took place in June and three Tory MPs didn’t make the cut: Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper and Esther McVey. Shortly after, Channel 4 showed the first publicly televised leadership debate, with leadership candidate Boris Johnson being represented by an empty podium because he refused to participate in the hustings. This, combined with the fact that Johnson had been avoiding the public for some time, sparked criticism that he was hiding during the campaign.
Nevertheless, Boris established himself as the frontrunner in the leadership race from the get-go with 114 votes, followed by Jeremy Hunt (43 votes) and Michael Gove (30 votes). His lead was surprisingly large, which begs the question – why did so many members of the Conservative Party favour him to become the next PM? After all, for many Britons, the former mayor of London is not exactly the embodiment of a popular or respectable statesman. Prior to the leadership election, the former Mayor of London spent a significant part of his political career making a name for himself as the “enfant terrible” of British politics, causing controversy with a string of sexist, homophobic and racist comments. However, Johnson was a key-figure for the “Vote Leave” campaign, the official campaign in favour of leaving the European Union during the 2016 EU referendum, and had a significant impact on its outcome. In the months leading up to the leadership election, Johnson reinforced his reputation as a hardline Brexiteer with sabre-rattling comments, like the idea that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be the “only safe route”. And since the members of the Conservative Party have been increasingly in favour of a no-deal Brexit, Johnson is deemed to be just the man for the job. It might come as no surprise that Boris has since recanted these statements, and did a considerable amount of flip-flopping with regards to Brexit and potential deals or no-deals. For example, he recently said that the chance of a no-deal Brexit was “a million to one against”, but he also refuses to rule out suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit.
It is safe to assume that the Conservative Party was also hoping that Boris might be able to salvage urgently needed votes they had lost to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the European Election in May 2019. Despite all of Johnson’s flaws (character and otherwise), he continually seems to get away with things that no other person would get away with. How does he do it? Ben Wright, political correspondent for the BBC, has the answer: “As far as most Tories are concerned, he is the party’s only superstar, and he has a proven record of winning elections because he stood for the mayoralty in London, which is quite a Labour city, and he won twice. The fact that he has star-power, the fact that he talks off the cuff, the fact that he is colourful, the fact that he does have this effervescent personality, the fact that he is happy to offend – Tory grassroots members seem to really like that.” What’s more, Johnson’s tough guy antics about Brexit were clearly directed towards the Conservative party (and not the general public) and he succeeded in boosting the party members backing as Ben Wright explains: “While about a quarter of the general public think that leaving the UK without a deal would be OK, about two thirds of the Tory grassroots think we should go without a deal.” And if you dig a little deeper: “An overwhelming 85% of Boris Johnson’s supporters want a no deal Brexit.”
And so it was pretty much plain sailing for Johnson. In the second and third round of the leadership contest, he secured the backing of 126 and 143 MPs respectively. His closest contender, Jeremy Hunt, received just 46 and 54 votes. The former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, and the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, were knocked out in the second and third round, which only left Johnson, Hunt, the Secretary of State Sajid Javid and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, to wrestle for the top job. The next two rounds of voting whittled it down to two contenders: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The current Foreign Secretary went straight on the offensive and promised his opponent “the fight of his life”.
Meanwhile, Boris was fighting on other fronts. A couple of days following the fifth ballot, the police were called to Johnson’s house late at night, because his neighbours had heard screaming and shouting, as well as banging, and were concerned for the welfare of Johnson’s 31-year-old girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. The police came and left after having been reassured that the couple was safe. According to the neighbours, Symonds was heard shouting: “You [Johnson] just don’t care for anything, because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.” Johnson has so far denied to comment on the incident, despite being repeatedly questioned about it by the British press.
The leadership contest is now open to Tory party members, who will cast their votes in a postal ballot. The two candidates have to take part in a series of membership hustings, culminating in the final event on the 17th July in London. The 160,000 party members will receive their postal ballots between 6th and 8th July, and the final deadline for voting is Sunday 21st July. The new Prime Minister will then be declared on Monday 22nd July.
According to British bookmakers, Johnson is currently the clear favourite to replace Theresa May. Whether he is still the favourite with his girlfriend remains to be seen. The British tabloid The Sun claims that the couple had “four explosive rows in six weeks and nearly split up three weeks ago.” Well, you can’t keep everyone happy, can you?