March 29, 2023

AFTER TWO days of voting, the Conservative MPs have chosen two of their colleagues to participate in the next stage of the leadership election: a second round when 160,000 party members will choose the winner. This is Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary. Mr. Johnson received more than half of the votes, 160. Mr. Hunt just overtook Michael Gove, the environment secretary, by 77 votes to 75.

Boris Johnson’s rise to the premiership now looks even more likely than a week ago. Mr. Johnson’s biggest problem has always been defeating his fellow Conservatives. He was never a team player: he spent more time lining his own pockets (he earned £540,000 in a year from journalism and public speaking) than campaigning for his colleagues. He was also a lackluster and lazy performer in the control room in Parliament. But he is adored by party members in the country, who appreciate his Bertie Wooster thesaurus speeches and flamboyant style. They also agree with him on Brexit.

Mr. Hunt is unlikely to be able to slow his momentum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is an impressive figure in many respects. He inherited a marginal place and turned it into a safe one. He has been Minister of Health for six years, longer than anyone since the creation of the National Health Service. He was a far better foreign secretary than Mr. Johnson, his predecessor: Foreign Office insiders say he inherited a demoralized and disoriented office and quickly revived it. But Mr Hunt is a sensible man who is trying to rally support for a party that’s a little crazy: obsessed with Brexit, furious at Brussels’ treatment of the UK, and addicted to chasing unicorns. Most party members say they support a no-deal Brexit despite overwhelming evidence of the damage it will do to the economy. Mr. Hunt also carries the equivalent of Cain in the Conservative Party: in 2016, he voted to stay. So while he claims that he is now determined to bring about Brexit, he provokes comparisons to Theresa May, who, according to hardened Brexiters, failed to deliver Brexit not because of an unsolvable problem and a hung parliament, but because she “believed”.

Mr. Johnson would have faced a much tougher fight with Michael Gove. Mr. Gove is one of the party’s most experienced debaters: he is slick, often funny, and, unlike Mr. Johnson, immersed in political details. He also has an appetite to go to the jugular. Mr. Gove could have done serious damage to Mr. Johnson. On the contrary, Mr. Hunt is too soft – his critics would call him “soft” – to burst Boris’s balloon. And again, luck accompanies the favorite.

The Conservative MPs are also acting out of self-preservation by choosing Messrs. Hunt and Johnson to end the contest. Members of Parliament knew that the rivalry between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gove could easily degenerate into the modern equivalent of a contest between Polyneices and Eteocles, who killed each other in their quest to rule Thebes (Mr. Johnson, who read the classics at Oxford, loves classical references). The two men were close friends in and out of Oxford, where Mr. Johnson played the senior role and Mr. Gove was something of a courtier. Mr. Johnson selected Mr. Gove to lead his campaign for Prime Minister in 2016. But then Mr Gove turned his back on his friend and former mentor and said he didn’t think he was fit to be prime minister. By electing Mr. Hunt, the deputies avoided bloodshed and distanced their party from one of the greatest psychodramas of recent years.

The party may have limited the potential damage to the race, but it certainly didn’t escape Scott. The two surviving candidates are the products of private schools and Oxford University, Mr. Johnson Eaton and Balliol, Mr. Hunt Charterhouse and Magdalene. The Conservatives eliminated the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in the country with £1 in his pocket (Sajid Javid), the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger (Michael Gove) and a senior Foreign Office official turned writer turned academic full of original ideas ( Rory Stewart). Mr Johnson refused to appear at the first televised debates and parliamentary lobbies. His team also reportedly used a tactic worthy of the Oxford Union (of which he was once President) rather than Parliament: “loaning” votes to various runners-up candidates (by encouraging loyal supporters to vote for them) in order to eliminate candidates such as Mr. … Stuart and Mr. Gove, who could give him the most trouble. “There were lies, and lies, and lies, and a lot of pomposity,” one Tory MP summed up the race.

Whatever the truth of these rumors (which is impossible to know given the secrecy of the ballot box), it is important for the future of the Conservative Party that some of the personal damage caused during this leadership campaign and its predecessors is repaired. Messrs. Johnson and Stuart must make peace (and Mr. Stuart must swallow his pride and revoke his promise that he will not work in the Johnson administration). Mr. Stewart demonstrated that the conservative can still excite middle-class voters. He would also make an excellent foreign minister.

Even more important, from the point of view of the Conservative Party, that Messrs. Johnson and Gove bury the hatchet. Mr Gove is a rare Brexit supporter who understands the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. He is also gifted with strengths that Mr. Johnson lacks: the ability to energize government departments with conservative ideas, a broad interest in public policy, and an impressive grasp of detail. In an ideal world, Mr. Gove would make a great CEO for Chairman Mr. Johnson. But then, in an ideal world, Polynices and Eteocles would not have killed each other.

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