Above: Boris Johnson (left) and Jeremy Hunt are in the race for the post of Britain’s next prime minister/Photo: UNI and conservatives.com
As Britain gears up for elections, the choice is between Boris Johnson, the controversial former foreign secretary, and Jeremy Hunt who does not inspire much confidence
By Sajeda Momin in London
Mud is flying in all directions and a media blitz is in full throttle as the race to 10 Downing Street heats up in the UK. The leadership contest in the Conservative Party has reached its final stage with two candidates—Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt—in a face-off that will decide the new prime minister of Great Britain by the end of July.
Johnson, the former foreign secretary, is the clear favourite till date and hopes to hold on to his lead as he participates in about 15 more rounds of Tory-member hustings taking place across every region and nation of the UK over the next four weeks. Hunt, the current foreign secretary who took over from Johnson when he resigned in protest against outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, has defeated around a dozen competitors, including the Pakistani-origin home secretary, Sajid Javid, to get a place in the final two.
Both candidates will spend the next month trying to convince 1.6 lakh grassroots Conservative Party members that they are the best man for the job of leading the Tories and forming the next government. Besides the grilling by party members, there will be a digital hustings in which citizens will get the opportunity to put questions to the future leader of the Tory Party, who will automatically assume the position of prime minister on July 23 once the results of the ballot are out. However, thanks to this being a party affair, the public will not be choosing the next prime minister in this nation of 66 million, only 1.6 lakh Tory members will have a say.
The contest has been necessitated by the fact that May stepped down after three unsuccessful attempts to get Parliament to agree to her plans for leaving the European Union. May took over from David Cameron just after the fateful referendum in June 2016 when nearly 52 percent of British voters said they wished to leave the 28-nation trading bloc of which they had been a member for the last four decades. Ever since, she has been dogged by Brexit. She will be remembered as the person who became prime minister because of Brexit and who was defeated by Brexit too.
Johnson, a former mayor of London and the leader of the Leave campaign during the referendum, has pitched himself as the only person who can take the UK out of the EU by the new deadline of October 31 this year and also heal the deeply divided Conservative Party. The maverick Johnson was actually expected to take over from Cameron after winning the Brexit vote in 2016, but a last minute back-stabbing by his deputy in the Leave campaign, Michael Gove, made Johnson step aside and May won uncontested. Many Brexiteers feel it is only right that after a very messy three years of negotiations, Johnson becomes the prime minister and fulfills his pledge of 2016 to take Britain out of the EU. For Johnson it is a “do or die commitment, come what may” and he is fully prepared to leave the trading bloc with “no deal” in place.
Opponent Hunt is a little softer on the no-deal exit, but not much, and sees it as a “last resort”. “I have always said that if the only way to deliver Brexit was via no deal then I would do so because the democratic damage of ignoring the referendum result would outweigh the economic risks of a no-deal exit,” wrote Hunt on the Conservative Party website. However, Hunt also understands that Parliament would block a no-deal exit in the same way as it did May’s deal and the country would end up in the same stalemate at the end of October as it is today. “I believe I have the best chance out of all the candidates of getting a better deal,” says Hunt confidently.
Many among the Conservatives warn that a Johnson premiership could lead to the collapse of the government and a general election, particularly if he attempted to pursue a no-deal. Tobias Ellwood, the defence minister, said he believed at least a dozen Tory MPs could be forced into voting against the government. “I think a dozen or so members of parliament on our side, would be voting against supporting a no-deal and that would include ministers as well as backbenchers,” Ellwood told the BBC.
May’s disastrous decision to go for a snap poll in 2017 has lost the Conservative Party its majority in the House of Commons, with the Tories only winning 317 seats out of the total 650, leaving it nine short of a majority. May was able to stitch up a government with the help of the 10 seats won by the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. If a dozen Tories vote against their own party in a no-confidence motion, they could easily bring the government down.
With not much to choose between the two leaders in terms of policies, the battle has really come down to personalities. Johnson is definitely deemed to be the more charismatic of the two, but he is also seen by his critics as a bit of a buffoon who is regularly putting his foot firmly in his mouth. Over last weekend, he came in for heavy media scrutiny when police were called to the home of his partner, Carrie Symonds, after neighbours reported a furious row between the couple. Ironically, 31-year-old Symonds, a PR professional, who has been credited with revamping Johnson’s image ever since they began dating last year, was at the centre of the latest controversy.
Johnson has refused to comment about the fight, arguing that it would be “unfair” on his family to speak about his private life. However, many cabinet ministers, backbenchers and even major party donors have demanded that Johnson speak up about his late-night altercation with Symonds as his private life is of public interest. Hunt said that Johnson needs to explain why police were called to his home, saying his rival “needs to show he can answer difficult questions”.
More importantly, John Griffin, a taxi tycoon who gave £4 million to the Tories, expressed concerns about Johnson’s morality and that “he should come clean about his previous behaviour, including his responsibilities to his children”. Johnson has four children by his estranged wife, half-Sikh Marina Wheeler, and a child with a woman with whom he had an affair while married to Wheeler. There are also unproven claims that he has at least one more child with another woman with whom he had an affair. Johnson has refused to comment on any of this. Griffin has called for Johnson to address all the allegations of extramarital affairs and how he treated women in those relationships badly, arguing that these are all highly relevant as “it is one of the ways you measure a person”.
Johnson has his fair share of supporters and the Indian-origin, former international development secretary, Priti Patel, is one of them. She told the BBC that questions about Johnson’s fight with his girlfriend was “very clear, politically motivated series of attacks, not expected in our country”. “It’s the type of behaviour associated with the old Eastern Bloc,” said Patel, who was removed from her ministerial position by May when she held 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, business people and lobbyists. Patel, who admitted in her resignation letter that her conduct “fell below the high standards expected of secretary of state”, is hoping that she will be rehabilitated if Johnson becomes prime minister.
Hunt, on the other hand, has projected himself as being “trustworthy” and has virtually called his rival a “coward” for not agreeing to more television debates. Johnson has only agreed to one TV debate with his opponent and that is to be aired on July 7. Hunt has pointed out that by then, Conservative Party members would have already begun returning their ballot papers. According to the process agreed upon by both candidates, party members would receive postal ballots between July 6-8 and they must return the papers by 5 pm on July 22 when the ballot would close. The new leader of the Conservative Party will be announced the next day.
With so much at stake, it is expected that the campaign on both sides will be quite brutal. Though Johnson has started with a long lead over his opponents, his performance seems to be flagging midway. Hunt, with his particularly bad track record in the health ministry, does not inspire much confidence either. For the voters, it seems to be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.