Here Comes Boris Johnson!
On Thursday, the British Conservative Party took another step toward making Boris Johnson, Member of Parliament and instrument of wreckage, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The race is now between Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, who nobody thinks can beat him. Not even Hunt seems to think so; his campaign is premised, instead, on the idea that he is the best candidate to put Johnson, who is notoriously undisciplined, “through his paces” and give him “the fight of his life,” presumably so that he can emerge as a better politician and, perhaps, human being. He might even be able to focus on the question of how he intends to keep his promises to lead the U.K. out of the European Union in a glorious and carefree manner. So far, there has been no coherent answer.
The job is up for grabs because Prime Minister Theresa May has stepped down as the Tories’ party leader. Under the U.K.’s parliamentary system, her successor will move into 10 Downing Street as soon as he is chosen. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has been doing his best to provoke a vote of no-confidence in the government, followed by a general election, but, unless he succeeds, the U.K. will be stuck for the time being with whomever the Tories choose. Their method of selection involves two phases. The first narrowed the field to two contenders. As recently as Wednesday, there were still five candidates—there had been thirteen to begin with—but they fell away, one after the other, in a series of votes by Tory M.P.s, in which the last-place finisher was dropped. The first of the final five to go was Rory Stewart, the international-development secretary, who ran a campaign that seemed thoughtful, scrappy, and disruptive but, in a Tory contest, may merely have been quixotic. (My colleague Sam Knight has written about Stewart’s campaign and about Johnson; Ian Parker profiled Stewart, in 2010.) Then went Sajid Javid, the home secretary, who had argued that it would be good for the Party if there was one person among the final two who had not gone to Oxford; he was the only one left who hadn’t. He was eliminated in the first of two votes on Thursday.
The next to go was Michael Gove, the environment secretary, whose pitch was that he had been one of the early Brexiteers, and so would also be a late one, or something like that. Some people hoped that Gove would be a finalist because he and Boris Johnson are said to hate each other—it’s a long story, involving a previous leadership fight—and a squabble to the finish might have been fun to watch. Some people fervently hoped that he would not, because to endure such a spectacle would be excruciating. There have been rumors—denied by Team Boris—that Johnson, who was far ahead, had directed some of his supporters to vote for Hunt, just to spite Gove. In the final ballot, Johnson had a hundred and sixty votes, Gove had seventy-five, and Hunt seventy-seven.
Now to Round Two. There will be a mail-in vote among Conservative Party members who are active in local associations, of whom there are about a hundred and sixty thousand. This will take a few weeks, during which time Johnson and Hunt will appear at various forums. Johnson, so far, has given very few interviews, sending out proxies to do the talking. One of them is Johnny Mercer, M.P., who was recently faced, on the program Radio5Live, with a question that he was not willing, or perhaps not able, to resolve: “How many children does Boris Johnson have?” The answer is surprisingly hard to pin down. (And yet it seems worth answering, for reasons that go beyond curiosity, such as transparency about a potential P.M.’s financial obligations and possible conflicts of interest.) Johnson, who turned fifty-five on Wednesday, is in the middle of a divorce.
There is also the matter of Johnson’s casual bigotry. On Wednesday, Ian Blackford, the parliamentary leader of the Scottish National Party, denounced Johnson in the House of Commons as a “racist” who “had a record of dishonesty” and was “not fit for office.” He cited Johnson’s comments about Muslim women in hijab (“letterboxes”), Africans (“watermelon smiles”), and Scots, whom Johnson once said should not be allowed to serve as Prime Minister. In the nineteen-nineties, when he was the editor of the Spectator magazine, it published a poem that referred to Scots as a “verminous race” of “tartan dwarves” who should be wiped out. Brexit has already inspired calls for a new referendum on Scottish independence. Johnson’s ascendancy would offer another reason to get out while the getting is good.
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If all goes according to plan, the Tories will name Johnson as Prime Minister on or before July 22nd. His mission will then be to figure out Brexit by October 31st, at which time the U.K. is due to leave the E.U., with or without a deal. He is even less popular in Brussels, though, than he is in Scotland. And who knows if he’ll even last that long? “He could have a confidence vote on his first day and be prime minister for ten minutes,” a Conservative Party source told the Guardian. With Johnson, that might be more than enough time to create trouble.