LONDON (AP) — The race to become Britain’s next leader has been dominated by Brexit, but disrupted by domestic drama and Donald Trump.
Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union divided the country, upended its politics and ultimately defeated Prime Minister Theresa May. She resigned as Conservative Party leader last month after failing to win Parliament’s backing for divorce terms with the EU.
May’s announcement triggered a leadership contest in which a 10-strong field of contenders was whittled down by Conservative lawmakers to two: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, his predecessor in that job.
Party members across the country are voting by postal ballot, with the result due to be announced July 23. The winner will take over from May as prime minister the next day.
Critics accuse both men of making unrealistic promises. EU leaders insist they will not reopen the withdrawal agreement they struck with May, and economists say leaving without a deal on divorce terms would plunge Britain into recession.
Those warnings have had little impact on the leadership race. Institute for Government researcher Tim Durrant wrote in a recent blog post that the debate was “increasingly untethered from the world as it is and instead speaks to the world as Conservative members would like it to be.”
QUESTIONS OF CHARACTER
Bookies and pollsters say Johnson — a flaxen-haired, Latin-spouting former London mayor — is the favorite to beat the competent but uncharismatic Hunt.
A born entertainer and attention-seeker, 55-year-old Johnson is seen by many Conservatives as a politician who can win back voters and defeat rival parties on both the left and the right.
“He knows how to rub them on their tummy and make them feel good,” said Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think-tank. “The last few years have been difficult for the Conservatives, to put it mildly. Johnson is a person to give a pep talk, rally the troops and get everything going again.”
But questions about character have long dogged Johnson, and they resurfaced last month after police were called to a blazing row between the politician and his partner, Carrie Symonds. The story dominated the news for several days and revived memories of past Johnson misdeeds.
When he was a journalist, Johnson was fired for fabricating a quote. As a lawmaker, he was sacked from a senior Tory job for lying about an extramarital affair. As foreign secretary he worsened the plight of a British-Iranian woman detained in Tehran by saying incorrectly that she was a journalist. He has made racist and offensive comments — calling Papua New Guineans cannibals, comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes” — that he shrugs off as plain-speaking or jokes taken out of context.
In contrast 52-year-old Hunt’s biggest gaffe was a slip of the tongue in which he claimed his wife is Japanese. She is Chinese.
The contest took a swerve when a newspaper published leaked cables from Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, describing the Trump administration as dysfunctional, clumsy and inept. The president branded the ambassador a “pompous fool,” and Darroch found himself struck off the White House guest list. He resigned Wednesday, saying it had become impossible for him to do his job.
In London, embarrassment at the leak was followed by anger that a respected British diplomat had been forced from his job by the U.S. president. Hunt joined other senior politicians in praising Darroch and chiding Trump, saying that “allies need to treat each other with respect.”
Johnson, however, merely stressed his good relations with the White House and the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Johnson may be calculating that it’s best not to anger Britain’s most important ally, but his response has been widely criticized, including by many Conservatives.
Johnson conceded that his reluctance to publicly back Darroch had been “a factor” in the ambassador’s decision to quit. But he insisted his views had been “misrepresented to Kim.”
Britain’s next leader is being chosen by about 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. They amount to about 0.25% of the overall electorate — and are not a very representative sample.
Conservative members are overwhelmingly white and middle class, largely male and strongly in favor of Brexit.
That gives Johnson, who helped lead the 2016 Brexit campaign, a natural edge over Hunt, who campaigned to remain. Hunt has performed well on the campaign trail, accusing Johnson of shirking scrutiny and lacking substance, while presenting himself as the serious, stable candidate. But it may be too little, too late to overtake the front-runner.
ROCKY ROAD AHEAD
The new prime minister will have barely three months to break Britain’s Brexit deadlock and get a divorce deal through Parliament by Oct. 31, or prepare the country for a rocky no-deal exit.
But a majority of lawmakers oppose leaving without a divorce agreement, and will use every tool they have to stop it. Johnson has refused to rule out suspending Parliament if it tries to block Britain’s departure.
Treasury chief Philip Hammond, who is likely to lose his job after May leaves, said shutting down Parliament would “provoke a constitutional crisis.” Former Prime Minister John Major says he’ll take Johnson to court if he tried to bypass Parliament.
May warned her successor that overcoming Britain’s Brexit divisions could be harder than they think.
“I had assumed mistakenly that the tough bit of the negotiation was with the EU,” she told the Daily Mail.
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