The Race for U.K. Prime Minister: How It’s Likely to Play Out

LONDON — After Theresa May’s three-year nightmare as Britain’s prime minister, you might think that no one would want her job. But as the race formally got underway on Monday, no fewer than 10 candidates secured enough support from Conservative lawmakers to enter the contest, a battle already marked by fierce infighting and lurid headlines over the candidates’ past drug use.

The field is so crowded that the Tory party modified its rules to try to whittle the contenders down to a shortlist of two by June 20.

The final choice will be made by around 150,000 members of the Conservative Party (the exact total is something of a mystery), producing a new prime minister by the end of next month. Here is what to expect.

It is considered Boris Johnson’s race to lose. But in light of the fact that, within recent memory, none of the early favorites have gone on to win a Tory leadership contest, predictions at this point are perilous.

Mr. Johnson divides opinion, flopped as foreign secretary and has been described as Britain’s answer to President Trump. But he also has attributes that make him a natural front-runner: star quality, charisma and a track record of winning elections as London mayor. He is popular with Conservative Party members and has a strong chance of victory if he gets through to the final stage of the selection process. So is he the answer to the party’s malaise?

With the Tories bleeding votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Mr. Johnson, the figurehead of the pro-Brexit referendum in 2016, is widely seen as the leader best equipped to win back party supporters. That could explain why he is adamant about keeping open the option of a no-deal Brexit, which will help him in the Tory leadership contest.

That position would probably not serve him so well in the event of a general election, as his Brexit stance has alienated urban liberals, but that is a battle for another day.

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Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary of Britain, leaving his house in London on Monday.CreditFacundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, via Shutterstock

Tory leadership contests are predictably unpredictable, and this one has been dominated by revelations that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, used cocaine a couple of decades ago.

Other candidates have admitted past drug use: Mr. Johnson claimed on TV some years ago that he sneezed, rather than ingested, when offered cocaine. Two Brexit hard-liners, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab, both former cabinet ministers, have owned up to cannabis use in college. The more centrist foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said that he drank a cannabis lassi when backpacking through India. Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, confessed to smoking opium at a wedding while trekking through Asia.

Mr. Gove’s campaign was hit hard because the story kept him in the headlines for the wrong reasons, facing questions such as whether he made a false declaration about drug use on a United States visa waiver application. As a journalist, Mr. Gove once wrote an article arguing that middle-class users helped finance a trade that brought misery in its wake. And, as a former education and justice secretary, he is particularly susceptible to the accusation of hypocrisy.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt being applauded as he started his campaign to be the Conservative Party’s leader in London on Monday.CreditSimon Dawson/Reuters

Always an important question, in view of the dismal history of front-runners. Until the drugs furor, Mr. Gove was seen as the most dangerous opponent, after he single-handedly sank Mr. Johnson’s chances in 2016.

Three years later, the rival candidate with momentum now seems to be Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, who on Monday unveiled the support of two influential figures in the cabinet: Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, the defense secretary. They hold opposite views on Brexit, underscoring Mr. Hunt’s claim that he can unite the party. While promising to deliver Brexit, Mr. Hunt has taken a softer line than Mr. Johnson, refusing to rule out the possibility of another extension to the Brexit deadline.

To start with, the contest will be fought out among the 313 Conservative lawmakers who whittle away the candidates in a series of ballots, finally reducing the field to a select two. With that, the choice is thrown over to the 150,000 or so members of the Conservative Party who will cast postal ballots.

They are generally older, more conservative and more in favor of Brexit than the population overall. If this seems an odd way to produce a new prime minister, it is, by historical standards, pretty open for the Tories. Before 1965, leaders of the Conservative Party were not elected by anyone at all, but emerged after discussion among a so-called magic circle of the party’s bigwigs.

Under current law, general elections must be called at least every five years, though they can occur sooner if the government loses a confidence vote.

But the prime minister is simply the leader of the majority party in Parliament. There is no requirement that an election be held when a prime minister steps down. So the expectation is that the winner of the Tory leadership contest will become the next prime minister. That assumes that the 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party who propped up Mrs. May’s government will remain loyal.

When the new leader takes over, he or she will likely face a no-confidence motion from the opposition Labour Party. But, given the dire state of the Tories in the polls, few Conservative lawmakers will want to face the voters. So it is probable that the fear of a Labour victory will keep Tory rebels from voting the new leader down, at least for now.

Even moderates in this contest are threatening to quit the European Union without an agreement if there is no other way out, so the risk of a potentially disastrous no-deal withdrawal is rising. But the prospects of a second referendum and, particularly, a general election are increasing too.

Mr. Johnson seems the candidate for Britons who are happy to contemplate a no-deal Brexit, though he is promising to try to avoid one by securing better terms from the European Union. Sometimes a new leader can change things, but most analysts doubt that Brussels will make any big concessions. So what then?

In essence, nothing will have changed. The next prime minister will inherit the same divided Parliament that thwarted Mrs. May — one that voted several times against a no-deal Brexit — and so could fall into direct conflict with lawmakers. Technically, it would be hard to stop a prime minister determined to pursue no deal. But it would probably not be impossible, and no government that foiled the will of Parliament would last very long.

Source: NYT

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