Hunt vs Boris: Britain’s leadership fight reaches final round

Ten candidates have been whittled down to two after Michael Gove was knocked out by Jeremy Hunt.

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Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt leave Downing Street after a meeting last year. But who will be returning to Number 10 as Britain's next prime minister? [Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is set to go head-to-head against Boris Johnson, the gaffe-prone former mayor of London, in the final round of the fight to become Britain’s next prime minister.

Both men are political heavyweights with decades of experience between them.

Johnson is the favourite to take the title, but after a subdued campaign, he has yet to land the knockout blow that will see him emerge victorious as the new leader of the Conservative Party – and by default take the keys to Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the country’s prime minister. 

In the final secret ballot of the 313 Conservative MPs, Michael Gove, once a close ally of Johnson, secured 75 votes, having punched above his weight in the previous round of voting when he surged into second place.

In the leadership contest three years ago, Gove landed a low blow to scupper his friend’s chances by declaring his own bid on the day Johnson was due to announce his candidacy. Gove said Johnson was simply “not up to the job” of leading the country.

British PM candidates clash over Brexit policy

Hunt came second in the fifth round of voting, the second to be held on Thursday, with 77 votes, while Johnson was given the support of 160 of the party’s MPs.

Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this month formally stepped down as party leader after her authority to govern collapsed following several failed attempts to win Parliament’s approval for a negotiated Brexit deal to leave the European Union.

Ten candidates stood in the first round of the MPs’ secret votes; they have now been pared down to two. The decision on who will lead the country of some 65 million people will now be put by postal ballot to the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. The new prime minister will be named in the week of July 22.

May’s successor will face the same parliamentary arithmetic that prevented her from governing with a majority, along with a public which appears to be disenchanted with Brexit and the way it is being delivered, as well as with the British political leadership as a whole. 

Head to head

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From the archive: Boris Johnson attends a NATO summit at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels in April 2018 [Yves Herman/Reuters]

Boris Johnson

The mop-haired former foreign secretary is widely known in Britain simply as “Boris”, no surname necessary. He has cultivated a reputation as a befuddled and bemused character on TV political comedy quiz shows, but is also fond of showing off his extensive education.

He is rarely far from cracking a joke in Latin, and few are in any doubt as to his intellect and linguistic agility. He served two full four-year terms as mayor of London but his experience in government’s top jobs is limited, and he infamously staged a photoshoot for his resignation as foreign secretary.

His gaffes are frequent, and while usually inconsequential, his misleading comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s purpose in visiting Iran saw the British-Iranian mother, jailed by Tehran, hauled before a court where his remarks were used as “proof” she had been engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.

He is a “hard Brexiteer”, having first made his name as a Europe correspondent. Sacked by The Times for making up a quote, he became Brussels columnist for the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, where he became “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism”, according to former EU external affairs commissioner Chris Patten.

He has also used outright bigotry in his writing, using the words “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” when referring to Africans. He has referred to gay men as “tank-topped bumboys” and insinuated that United States President Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain due to his being “part-Kenyan”. He said the Libyan coastal town of Sirte could be a world-class tourist destination once they “clear the dead bodies away”.

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Jeremy Hunt has been a strong supporter of Saudi Arabia [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Jeremy Hunt

The most controversial health secretary in recent memory, Hunt oversaw the imposition of a new junior doctors’ employment contract after negotiations with unions broke down.

Such was the discontent, doctors went on strike – the first such industrial action in 40 years. He also refused to award nurses a one percent pay raise.

Hunt has also faced criticism over his failure to declare part-ownership in a property company. It was revealed he bought a series of luxury apartments thanks to a substantial discount from a property developer who was a major Conservative Party donor. A spokesman said at the time it was “an honest administrative mistake”.

As foreign secretary, Hunt has been a frequent supporter of Britain’s friendship with Saudi Arabia, particularly when Riyadh has come into criticism for its actions in the war in Yemen and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Source: Al Jazeera