Today (July 5), the first ballot to elect the successor of David Cameron, who resigned as Conservative Party leader and Britain’s prime minister in the wake of June 23’s Brexit vote, is being held.
The Conservative Party’s 330 members of parliament (MPs) have to whittle down a list of five candidates to a shortlist of two, who will then face the final vote of about 150,000 party members. The new leader is set to be announced on September 9.
The five contestants are Stephen Crabb, Theresa May, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. The first two backed Remain while the last three supported Brexit during the EU referendum. What is striking about this list is Gove’s inclusion and Boris Johnson’s absence.
Johnson and Gove were the architects of the Leave camp. In the wake of the Brexit vote, they formed what was regarded as the ‘dream team’ that would take the Conservative leadership and lead the post-Brexit Britain.
In fact, for many people inside and outside the UK, until the early hours of Thursday (June 30), Johnson was the firm front-runner in the leadership battle and Gove was his running mate.
However, within the space of a few hours before the noon deadline for nominations for the leadership contest on Thursday, the whole dynamic of the Conservative leadership suddenly turned upside down.
In a statement issued to the press just after 9 am on Thursday, Gove, 53, said he would run for the leadership. The reason the justice secretary gave for his shock decision, which he reportedly made very late on Wednesday night, was that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Gove’s volte-face pronouncement to run and especially his judgment that the former mayor of London was unfit to lead the party and the country in the post-Brexit period brutally ended the latter’s leadership bid – and possibly his long-held political ambition to lead the Conservative Party and the UK.
In a press conference that meant to be the launch of his leadership campaign and took place just moments before the deadline for nominations passed, Johnson stunned his supporters and the whole country, announcing that he would rule himself out of the race.
If June 23’s Brexit vote was an earthquake that shook Britain to its core and sent shock waves across Europe, the announcements by Johnson and Gove a week later could be seen as two huge “aftershocks.”
Nobody could expect that the two leading Brexiters, who stood side by side and fought together as comrades throughout the referendum campaign, would end up becoming each other’s enemy.
Both Johnson and Gove have been criticized after their bombshell declarations.
Lord Michael Heseltine, a senior Conservative, scathingly criticized Johnson for “leaving the battlefield” after ripping the Conservative party apart and leading Britain to the “greatest constitutional crisis of modern times.”
Gove’s decision to abandon Johnson at the eleventh hour and run for the leadership himself has been described by some of Johnson’s supporters as an “act of treachery”, a “calculated plot” or a “political assassination.”
Gove, 48, was also described as a “political serial killer” because he destroyed the political career of not only his Brexit ally, but also his close friend Cameron. It is believed that Cameron had thought Gove would never go against him by campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.
Though Gove claims his patriotism and principles led him to turn on both Johnson and Cameron, his political ruthlessness is not well-received, especially at a time when both the Conservative party and Britain are deeply divided.
His last-minute decision to stand for the leadership was met with incredulity and suspicion also because he had repeatedly and categorically said he was neither interested in nor equipped for the top job.
All of these work against him. Though he was a leading Brexiter and a prominent figure within the party, he has not received significant backing from fellow Conservative MPs.
In fact, according to some calculations, as of 16:30 GMT, Monday (July 4), among 212 of the party’s 330 MPs who have already declared who they will be supporting, only 26 have backed him.
Andrea Leadsom: Leading Brexiter in the race
While Gove’s hopes of becoming the Tory leader – and consequently the UK’s prime minister – are faltering, the chance of Andrea Leadsom succeeding Cameron is increasing.
Leadsom, a 53-year-old minister in the energy and climate change department, was a very visible and influential Brexiter during the referendum campaign.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, she was thought to become a high-profile member of the Johnson-led ‘dream team.’ However, the disunity among the leading Brexiters eventually prompted her to stand herself.
Following Gove’s plot against Johnson, a number of MPs, who had previously backed the latter, have turned to Leadsom, making her leapfrog Gove in the leadership race.
Notable among those who have already backed her, which also include Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, is Boris Johnson.
In a statement issued on Monday evening, Johnson said Leadsom “offers the zap, the drive and the determination essential for the next leader of the country,” and above all, “possesses the qualities needed to bring together leavers and remainers in the weeks and months ahead.” That’s why he “will be voting for Andrea Leadsom tomorrow.”
A Conservative Home poll of party activists on July 4 gave her 38% support, a point higher than Theresa May.
As an ardent Brexiter, she praises the Brexit vote, regarding it as “a huge opportunity” for Britain. She pledges to trigger Article 50 to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU as soon as she becomes Prime Minister if she wins the Conservative leadership election.
She also strongly insists that next Conservative leader must be a Brexit supporter.
However, though Leadsom is a becoming a real contender to succeed Cameron, her leadership has so far been largely untested. She has been an MP for only six years and has been serving as a junior minister since 2014.
She is also put under intense political scrutiny and criticism.
For instance, she has been forced to clarify a statement she made in 2013 that leaving the EU would be “a disaster.” In the post-Brexit era, when not only a week but a day or even a couple of hours could be “a long time in politics,” a comment made three years ago could be seen as ancient and irrelevant.
However, on July 2, the Daily Mail, the right wing newspaper, which is widely read among Conservative grassroots supporters, recalled that statement and branded her as a hypocrite.
On June 30, with a front-page headline saying: “A party in flames and why it must be Theresa,” the same paper vehemently endorsed May, a Remain campaigner.
The Daily Mail’s scathing criticism of Leadsom and its explicit support for May reflects a significant change of mood among Britain’s press and public after the Brexit vote.
The views of Britain’s political elite have also shifted. Given the political and economic disarray the country is facing, and deep divisions within the party after the Brexit vote, many conservative MPs likely prefer somebody who is capable of providing a strong, stable and unifying leadership.
That is why May has emerged as the favorite to win the leadership contest.
Theresa May: “A safe pair of hands”?
Though supporting Remain, May maintains that the referendum must be respected: “Brexit means Brexit” and there “must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door, and no second referendum.”
However, unlike Leadsom, May states that Article 50 will not be invoked “until the British negotiating strategy is agreed and clear.”
Compared with other four candidates, May, 59, has many advantages. One of these is her proven leadership competence and experience. She is one of Britain’s longest-serving and most successful home secretaries and has long been mentioned as a potential future leader of the party.
She held a low-key role during the referendum campaign. Unlike her fellow Remainers, she also has long campaigned for lower migration and tighter border controls. All of these make Brexiters receptive to her candidacy.
Though a Euroskeptic, unlike Gove and Leadsom, she is very open and pragmatic. This is very crucial for both the UK and the EU to amiably settle their divorce.
Most importantly, she is running as the “safe pair of hands” candidate, who can offer “leadership that can unite our party and our country.”
In its editorial comment on June 30, the Daily Mail wrote: “Among the five candidates vying to succeed David Cameron, only May has the right qualities, the stature and experience to unite both her party and the country.”
That is why it “believes it has to be Theresa May for the Tory leadership.”
Such an argument by a paper that strongly supported Britain’s exit from the EU explains well why May is the clear favorite to replace Cameron.
In fact, more than a half of those 212 MPs have already backed her.
With regard to other candidates, they are unlikely to make the shortlist of two. Though Stephen Crabb is seen as one of the rising stars of the Conservative Party, the 43-year-old pensions secretary remains very unknown.
Liam Fox, 54, already competed for the leadership in 2005 and came third in that leadership contest which saw Cameron emerge as the victor. Yet, he is likely to be eliminated first this time as he has so far received the least backing from fellow MPs.
Therefore, the final two candidates are likely to be Leadsom and May. If it is the case, the former has a better chance to become the next Conservative leader and Britain’s next prime minister because she is more popular than the latter among the party members, who are Eurokceptic.
However, if the shock Brexit vote and many of its aftershocks have indicated anything, it is unwise to rule out any possible outcome. Yet, one thing is sure. Whoever comes out on top, she/he will play an influential role in shaping Britain’s politics and its relations with Europe in the post-Brexit period. Thus, this leadership election is hugely important for both the UK and the EU.
Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
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