And then there were two.
Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK have finished voting, and they’ve chosen the two finalists to replace outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.
Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister, once again confirmed his frontrunner status on Thursday, commanding first place after the fifth and final round of voting by Conservative members of Parliament.
Johnson won handily, with 162 votes in the final round. The runner-up, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, came in second, with just 77 votes.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary and the guy who ruined Johnson’s chances of becoming prime minister in 2016, was eliminated. It was very close; Gove got 75 votes.
But, barring a stunning upset, Johnson now looks on the verge of finally becoming prime minister. Hunt will have four weeks to make his pitch to the wider Conservative Party. But Johnson’s biggest obstacle was winning over his fellow MPs, and he did that easily. He’s likely even more popular with the rest of the party outside of Parliament.
Whether Johnson or Hunt wins, either will be faced with the daunting task of trying to finalize the UK’s break up with the European Union, which is currently scheduled for October 31.
This leadership contest is expected to stretch on for the next four weeks, with a new prime minister taking over around the second half of July.
A brief guide to the Conservative leadership contest
Prime Minister Theresa May formally stepped aside as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, allowing the contest to replace her to begin soon after. May will remain as prime minister until the next leader is selected.
The next prime minister will also come from the Conservatives (or Tories, as they’re also called). That’s because the actual makeup of Parliament isn’t changing, and the Conservatives will retain control of government. The next general election isn’t scheduled until 2022, so presumably, whoever takes over for May will stay in power at least until then. (Earlier elections can’t be ruled out, of course, but they’re not an option right now.)
This also means the Conservatives — specifically, Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) and party members — will select the next prime minister.
Conservative MPs voted in secret ballots, which started last week and lasted five rounds. A total of 10 candidates were vying to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and the future prime minister of the United Kingdom. Three were eliminated in this first ballot and one dropped out shortly afterward. Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab got ousted in the second round. International development secretary Rory Stewart lost in the third round. Home Secretary Sajid Javid got knocked out in the fourth. Gove was the last to go.
Now Johnson and Hunt will take their campaigns to the rest of the Conservative Party. There will be 16 hustings — basically, campaign speeches given to Conservative Party members by the candidates — and two televised debates. Then, the Conservative Party’s 160,000 or so official members will mail in their votes. The winner is expected to be announced the week of July 22, and whoever prevails will become the next Conservative leader and prime minister.
Johnson and Hunt will battle to take over the Brexit chaos
Brexit is by far the biggest challenge facing the next prime minister. It’s currently scheduled for October 31, 2019 — just a few short months after the next leader takes over.
Conservatives are also under pressure from the rising Brexit Party, which dominated the European parliamentary elections on the single issue of the UK leaving the EU. The Conservatives have taken the Brexit Party’s success as a warning that if they can’t deliver Brexit under a new leader, it may doom the party altogether.
But the next prime minister, whether Johnson or Hunt, will inherit the same Brexit deadlock that ultimately ended May’s premiership.
May’s Brexit deal failed in Parliament three times. But right now it’s the only deal on offer, and the EU has insisted it will not renegotiate the agreement, no matter who the next prime minister is.
That hadn’t stopped both Johnson and Hunt from claiming they’d be successful at persuading the EU to come back to the negotiating table, despite the EU saying the opposite.
Johnson has said he’d be willing to pull the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31, if he couldn’t win concessions from the EU. He framed the threat as part of his negotiating strategy, but it’s not clear the EU will budge. A no-deal Brexit is bad for the EU, and an option it would like to avoid, but it’s going to be far worse for the UK. (Parliament, it should be noted, does not support a no-deal Brexit, which could also complicate things.)
Hunt, who supported Remain in the 2016 election, has been less committed to a no-deal Brexit. He said in June he would pursue one with a “heavy heart,” but only as the option of the last resort.
Hunt is casting himself as the “adult in the room” compared to Johnson, who’s gaffe-prone and a reputation for mendacity. And while Johnson is a polarizing figure among the broader public, he’s got a lot of support among Conservative members, which is increasingly clamoring for Brexit at all costs.
Hunt, however, may persuade more business-minded Tories that he’s the more responsible one — the guy less willing to risk the potentially catastrophic consequences of a no-deal exit. But as a former Remainer, many Brexit enthusiasts don’t trust him, seeing him as potentially Theresa May 2.0.
So Johnson is still the clear favorite to become prime minister in July. Then comes figuring out the future of Britain.