And then there were two
AFTER TWO days of voting, Tory MPs have chosen two of their colleagues to move on to the next phase of the leadership election: a second round in which the party’s 160,000 members will choose the winner. They are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State. Mr Johnson got more than half the vote with 160. Mr Hunt just beat Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, by 77 votes to 75.
Boris Johnson’s ascent to the premiership now looks even more likely than it did a week ago. Mr Johnson’s main problem has always been winning over his fellow Conservative MPs. He’s never been much of a team player, spending more time lining his own pockets (earning £540,000 from journalism and public speaking in a year) than campaigning for his peers. He has also been a bland and lazy performer at the post office box in parliament. But he is adored by party members across the country who cherish his Bertie Wooster-with-a-thesaurus speeches and flamboyant style. They also agree with him about Brexit.
It is unlikely that Mr. Hunt can slow down his momentum. The Secretary of State is an impressive figure in many ways. He inherited a marginal chair and made it a safe one. He was health minister for six years, longer than anyone since the NHS was founded. He has been a far better Secretary of State than Mr Johnson, his predecessor: State Department insiders say he inherited a demoralized and disoriented department and quickly revived it. But Mr Hunt is a sensible man trying to win the support of a party that has gone a little mad: fixated on Brexit, furious at the way Britain has been treated by Brussels, and determined to chase unicorns. The majority of party members say they support a no-deal Brexit, despite overwhelming evidence about the damage it would do to the economy. Mr Hunt also bears the Conservative Party equivalent of Cain’s mark: he voted Remain in 2016. While he claims he is now determined to deliver Brexit, he draws comparisons to Theresa May who, according to hard-core Brexiteers, failed to deliver Brexit not because of an intractable problem and hung parliament, but because she didn’t “believe” ‘.
Mr Johnson should have had a much tougher fight against Michael Gove. Mr Gove is one of the party’s most accomplished debaters – quick on his feet, often witty and, unlike Mr Johnson, steeped in policy detail. He’s also hungry to go for the jugular. Mr. Gove would have done Mr. Johnson real damage. By contrast, Mr. Hunt is too soft a figure – his critics would call him “bland” – to burst the Boris balloon. Again, luck is with the front runner.
Tory MPs are also acting out of self-preservation, electing Messrs Hunt and Johnson to round out the game. Members of Parliament knew that a contest between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove could easily have degenerated into the modern equivalent of the contest between Polynices and Eteocles killing each other in their determination to rule Thebes (Mr Johnson, who read classics at Oxford, loves classical references). The two men were close friends in Oxford and beyond, with Mr Johnson in the lead role and Mr Gove as something of a courtier. Mr Johnson chose Mr Gove to lead his 2016 Prime Ministerial campaign. But then Mr Gove turned on his friend and former mentor and announced that he did not think he was fit to be prime minister. By electing Mr Hunt, the MPs have avoided bloodletting and distanced their party from one of the biggest psychodramas of recent years.
The party may have limited the race’s potential damage, but Scott certainly didn’t escape unscathed. The two surviving candidates are both products of private schools and Oxford University, Mr Johnson Eton and Balliol, Mr Hunt Charterhouse and Magdalen. Conservatives eliminated the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in the country with £1 in his pocket (Sajid Javid), the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger (Michael Gove) and a Foreign Office high flyer turned author and academic brimming with original ideas (Rory Stewart). Mr Johnson refused to show up at the first televised debate and parliamentary lobby. His team also reportedly used tactics worthy of the Oxford Union (of which he once chaired) rather than Parliament: “loaning” votes to various runners-up (by encouraging loyal supporters to vote for them) to promote candidates, such as Mr. . Stewart and Mr. Gove, who are arguably causing him the most trouble. “There have been lies and lies and lies and a whole lot of stiltedness,” was a summary of the race to date from a Tory MP.
Whatever the truth of these rumors may be (and it is impossible to know given the secrecy of the ballot box), it is important for the future of the Conservative Party that some of the personal damage done during this leadership campaign and its predecessor , being recovered. Mr. Johnson and Stewart must make peace (and Mr. Stewart must swallow his pride and withdraw his promise that he will not serve in a Johnson administration). Mr Stewart has shown that a Conservative can still excite middle voters. He would also make an excellent foreign minister.
From a Conservative Party point of view, it is even more important that Messrs Johnson and Gove bury the hatchet. Mr Gove is that rare thing – a Brexiteer who understands the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. He is also gifted with the strengths Mr. Johnson lacks: the ability to revitalize government departments with conservative ideas, a broad interest in public policy, and an impressive command of detail. In an ideal world, Mr. Gove would make an excellent CEO for Mr. Johnson’s chairman of the board. But in an ideal world, Polynices and Eteocles wouldn’t have slaughtered each other.