LONDON, June 10, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Around a dozen British Conservative MPs
will formally throw their hats into the ring on Monday in the fight to
replace Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister, with her former
foreign secretary Boris Johnson seen as the runaway favourite.
Nominations to succeed May — who resigned on Friday as head of the ruling
Tory party following her failure to deliver Brexit — open at 10:00 am (0900
GMT) and close at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT).
Britain’s departure from the European Union, twice delayed and now set for
October 31, will dominate a contest scheduled to run until late July and
which, in the past, has been characterised by shocks and surprises.
The new leader of the centre-right party — which won the most seats at the
last general election in 2017 — will almost certainly become prime minister,
with May remaining in Downing Street in the meantime.
Unofficial campaigning already started weeks ago and Johnson has emerged as
the undisputed frontrunner — although in previous leadership races the early
pacesetter has never been victorious.
Current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, interior minister Sajid Javid and
Environment Secretary Michael Gove are perhaps the best-known names of 10
other MPs also in the running.
– Brexit dominates –
Each candidate must be nominated by at least eight Conservative MPs.
In a series of ballots over the coming weeks, party lawmakers will then
whittle down the list of names to just two.
The final choice will then be made by more than 160,000 paying party
“The obvious big issue is Brexit — there is very little else that
preoccupies the Conservative Party at the moment,” Tim Bale, politics
professor at Queen Mary, University of London, told AFP.
“Boris Johnson is likely to win this election because he is offering the
Conservative party members what they want… a no-deal Brexit,” he added,
referring to Britain leaving the EU without a formal agreement.
But “whether he can actually achieve that is another matter,” the expert
– Chequered track record –
Johnson, 54, a former mayor of London and key figure in the divisive 2016
EU referendum campaign, served as May’s foreign secretary until he resigned
last summer over her Brexit strategy.
Charismatic and popular among grassroots Conservatives, he is less liked by
Conservative MPs sceptical of his bombastic style and chequered track record.
Although some believe his undistinguished two-year tenure as Britain’s top
diplomat may work against him, Johnson has garnered growing support from
cabinet members and both centrist and right-wing Tories.
He has vowed Britain will leave the EU “deal or no deal” in October and
said this weekend he would withhold the country’s Brexit bill if the EU does
not offer improved withdrawal terms.
Johnson also argued only he could defeat leftist Labour leader Jeremy
Corbyn and anti-EU populist Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party has been
poaching Tory voters disgruntled at the party’s handling of Brexit.
– Cocaine scandal –
Johnson’s closest rival is seen as Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a
eurosceptic who also fronted the 2016 Leave campaign.
He turned on Johnson during the last leadership contest in 2016, in a move
that ultimately cleared the path for May.
However, the 51-year-old has become mired in controversy after he admitted
— with deep regret — to using cocaine on several occasions two decades ago.
In contrast to Johnson on Brexit, Gove has said he would delay leaving the
EU by “a few extra days or weeks” if needed to seal a new deal.
Another leading contender, Hunt, has vowed to renegotiate the agreement May
struck with Brussels, claiming Sunday that he had received encouraging
signals for such a move from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
– Long shots –
All of the candidates will take part in a series of private hustings in
front of MPs, and some have also committed to appear in television debates.
Once selected, the two finalists will then hold at least a dozen party
member events around Britain.
The other contenders are regarded more as long shots.
Ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, 2016 leadership contender Angela Leadsom
and former work and pensions minister Ester McVey are all ardent eurosceptics
who insist on Britain leaving the EU in October.
Among those taking a more moderate stand on Brexit are international
development secretary Rory Stewart, health minister Matt Hancock, former
chief whip Mark Harper and former universities’ secretary Sam Gyimah, who
backs a second referendum.