The starting gun in the race to replace Theresa May as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party was fired as she resigned on the morning of Friday, May 24. By the end of Monday, June 10, would-be leaders able to muster eight nominations from sitting MPs had handed in their applications.
In truth, a few of the frontrunners had a head start, declaring their candidacy weeks before the prime minister stepped down amid Brexit chaos.
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The job comes with late nights, few holidays and a working environment that makes Game of Thrones look like The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. May’s replacement will face having to arrange a British withdrawal from the European Union in some kind of orderly manner, or risk crashing out with a “no-deal” Brexit.
The British parliament may have voted against “no-deal” several times, but it remains the legal default for what will happen on October 31. When the EU granted a six-month extension to Article 50 in March, European Council President Donald Tusk told British politicians “please do not waste this time”.
And so, with less than five months to go to the Brexit deadline, Britain’s governing Conservative party is holding a leadership election. Realistically, one of the new leader’s first jobs is going to be asking the EU for another extension to Article 50.
The first secret ballot of the 313 Conservative MPs took place on Thursday, June 13, with the second on Tuesday, June 18. Ballots will continue through the week until the nominees are whittled down to just two. The final choice will then be given to the 160,000-odd Conservative Party members, with a result expected by July 22.
May’s successor will face the same parliamentary arithmetic that prevented her from governing with a majority, along with a public which is, to put it politely, disenchanted with Brexit, the way Brexit is being delivered, and British political leadership as a whole.
So, who might it be?
The mop-haired, larger-than-life former foreign secretary is 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. His experience in government’s top jobs is limited, and he infamously staged a photoshoot for his resignation as foreign secretary, though he did serve two full four-year terms as mayor of London.
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 President Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain due to his being “part-Kenyan”.
After a landslide of support among Conservative MPs at the first ballot on Thursday, June 13, in which he won 114 of 313 possible votes, bookmakers’ put his odds at 1/5 – the firm favourite. He solidified his lead in the second ballot, securing 126 votes, and now stands at 1/6 with the bookmakers. In the third ballot, he inched forwards, receiving 143 votes. On Wednesday evening, you could only get 1/7 on Boris winning the leadership contest.
In the fourth ballot, Boris secured 157 votes.
An MP since 2010, Dominic Raab was a principal architect of the withdrawal agreement, yet the day after it was presented to the cabinet, he resigned as Brexit secretary, saying he could not support the deal.
A staunch Brexiteer, he sits further to the right of Boris Johnson and was initially his main rival for the top job. He is himself not immune to Boris-style gaffes, famously stating (while still Brexit secretary negotiating with the EU) that he had not, until that point “quite realised the full extent” to which Britain was dependent on the Dover-Calais English Channel crossing route. About 17 percent of the UK’s entire trade, worth around $150bn, uses the shipping route.
A black belt in karate, bookmakers were offering 50/1 on him becoming next Tory leader after he won 23 votes in the first ballot of MPs. He then failed to pick up enough support and fell at the second hurdle, with 30 votes – three short of the threshold needed to get through to the next round.
Michael Gove, formerly a staunch ally of Boris Johnson, competed in the last Tory leadership election, having stabbed Boris in the back. Gove announced his own candidacy the morning his friend was due to launch his campaign, saying he did not think Johnson was up to the job.
As education secretary, Gove won few friends among teachers, infuriating many with reactionary proposals including arcane grammar standards, and sending copies of the King James Bible to all schools in the country.
He has found praise for his more recent work as environment secretary, banning microbeads in a bid to protect marine life.
A staunch neo-conservative, he is a firm advocate of the privatisation of public services and has called for the National Health Service to be dismantled. He dropped from 10/1 to 16/1 after admitting using cocaine as a journalist, before condemning teachers caught in possession of the drug. Three of the teachers were banned from teaching for life, yet the former education secretary remains a frontrunner to be the next leader of the country.
Having received 37 votes in the first ballot, bookmakers had him at 20/1. Gove picked up the support of a further four MPs in the second secret ballot, coming third with 41 votes, but lacked serious momentum, and dropped to 33/1. He received a small surge of support in the third ballot, picking up 10 more MPs, with 51 votes. He was third in the race, with bookmakers putting him back at 20/1 on Wednesday, before leapfrogging Jeremy Hunt to take the crucial second place in the fourth ballot, with 61 votes, on Thursday morning.
The former Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom came second to Theresa May in the 2016 leadership competition, pulling out to allow May to take power unopposed.
She came under fire during that bid for the top after suggesting being a mother made her a better candidate than Theresa May, who has no children.
A former banker and prominent Brexiteer, she argued that Bank of England governor Mark Carney had destabilised markets with his doom-laden predictions of the potential fall-out of a “no-deal” crash out of the EU.
When Minister of State for Energy, she ended subsidies for onshore wind farms and opposed European targets for renewable energy. Previously, as a junior treasury minister, she was criticised for receiving a donation of nearly $90,000 from a family-owned business, which had been routed through the British Virgin Islands tax haven.
At 8/1 before the first ballot, she had overtaken Michael Gove to become third favourite – but received the support of just 11 MPs and was eliminated in the first round of voting.
The most controversial health secretary in recent memory, Jeremy 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.
Hunt came second in the first ballot, receiving the support of 43 MPs – a long way behind Johnson – but was still in the running at 8/1 ahead of the second ballot, in which he again came second, with 46 votes – still 80 fewer than Johnson. But bookmakers reported Hunt’s momentum slowing, and dropped his odds of winning the leadership contest to 16/1. He maintained his second place in the race after the third ballot, with the support of 54 MPs and was priced by the bookies at 12/1 – but was pushed into third place in the fourth ballot by Michael Gove after receiving 59 votes to Gove’s 61.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is a second-generation migrant to Britain, whose parents came from Pakistan. As home secretary, he has presided over a crackdown on immigration, enforcing rules that, had they been in place, would have prevented his father from entering the United Kingdom.
A former banker, reportedly at one point on a $3 million annual salary, he became an MP (annual salary $100,000) in 2010.
He has described himself as a “reluctant Remainer”, being a Eurosceptic on the whole, while believing that Britain is better off as a member of the EU.
Having won 23 votes of the 313 available at the first ballot, bookmakers had him at 25/1 to win before he scraped through the second ballot with 33 votes. He swiftly became the definite outsider at 100/1, but defied the odds to survive in the race beyond the third ballot, in which he received 38 votes. Bookmakers had him at 33/1 on Wednesday evening, but he crashed out on Thursday’s first ballot – the fourth and penultimate poll of parliamentarians – with 34 votes. He is, however, 4/1 to be the next Chancellor, or finance minister, of the UK.
Former GMTV presenter Esther McVey is a backbench MP with previous government experience, having resigned as work and pensions secretary last November in protest over the way Brexit negotiations were being handled.
She was in charge of overseeing the problematic Universal Credit programme but was found to have misled parliament when stating the National Audit Office had recommended the acceleration of the rollout. The NAO had in fact recommended the scheme be paused.
She also sparked anger in March when claiming that impoverished families only used food banks because they “prioritised mobile phones over food”. She was 100/1 to be the next Conservative party leader ahead of the first ballot, but was the least popular of any candidate, with only nine MPs agreeing she would make an adequate prime minister. She was the first to be eliminated from the competition.
Health secretary Matt Hancock had been endorsed by none other than Robert Rinder, famed for his appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and his own show, Judge Rinder – sort of the British equivalent of Judge Judy.
He was also the first ever MP to launch their own smartphone app. The Matt Hancock app allowed fans to keep up to date with the MP’s speeches and appearances, but was pulled from the market after a lukewarm public response and claims it had some significant privacy flaws.
He was appointed health secretary in July 2018, succeeding Jeremy Hunt in the position, and promised “no privatisation of the NHS on my watch”. He has since been criticised for putting around 20 NHS contracts worth an estimated $160m out to tender. Before the first ballot, he was a rank outsider at 100/1. After the first ballot, in which he got the votes of 20 MPs, his chances dropped to 200/1. He withdrew from the contest on Monday 17 June, endorsing Boris Johnson.
Former constitution minister, immigration minister and chief whip Mark Harper has built a reputation for taking on jobs no one else really wants to do.
An auditor and accountant by profession, he was notably absent from the scandal surrounding MPs expenses. He was immigration minister at the time of the now-infamous “Here illegally? Go home or risk arrest” vans driven around areas with high immigrant populations, but resigned his position when it was found he employed a cleaner who did not have permission to work in the UK. He (wrongly) believes a lion would beat a bear in a fight.
He was always likely to be another also-ran, with bookmakers offering 100/1 on him becoming next Conservative leader before the first ballot of MPs. He won the support of ten MPs, and was eliminated from the race.
International development secretary Rory Stewart was a coalition official in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, as a deputy governorate coordinator of two southern provinces. He subsequently became involved in charity work and spent three years living in Afghanistan – the account of which, “The Places In Between” is a New York Times bestseller and the recipient of many awards for literature.
Stewart has been a social media hit on this campaign, frequently taking to Twitter to invite members of the public to come and talk to him. One such video was widely pilloried for having him pretend to hold the camera, as if it were a phone selfie.
Long thought to be an outsider, bookmakers cut his odds after a surprising 19 MPs backed him, and had him at 16/1 to be next Conservative leader and British prime minister. After performing well in the first televised debate, he won over several more MPs, nearly doubling his support, scoring 37 votes in the second secret ballot. Bookmakers subsequently slashed his odds again, and at 7/1 he was their second-favourite to win the contest. It was always difficult to see him picking up votes from Dominic Raab’s supporters and he failed to get the votes needed to make it through another ballot, falling at the third hurdle having been abandoned by 10 MPs and scoring just 27 votes.