- Ex-London mayor pulls out minutes before noon deadline
- Gove unexpectedly joins the race with attack on former ally
Boris Johnson pulled out of the race to be the next British prime minister after a savage attack from former Brexit ally Michael Gove, who will now compete for the job with Home Secretary Theresa May.
Johnson dramatically withdrew from a contest that he’d been the bookmakers’ favorite to win after Gove, the justice secretary, entered at the last minute, saying the former London mayor wasn’t fit to lead the country. Earlier Thursday, May cast herself as the candidate to unify the Conservatives after David Cameron’s decision to resign. There are three other contenders to succeed him as party leader and prime minister.
“Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament I have concluded this person cannot be me,” Johnson told a news conference in London on Thursday, shortly before the noon deadline for nominations expired. Gove later told BBC Television that he “tried as hard as I could” before concluding that Johnson could not build a winning team and that finally, “I felt it had to fall to me.”
One week after Britain voted to leave the EU in a shock break with a half-century of postwar alignment, the country remains in a state of political limbo. Cameron quit but is staying on until September, the Labour opposition is in disarray and “Leave” campaigners who won the referendum have yet to announce detailed policies beyond an intention to “take back control.”
With financial markets on edge, the winner of the Conservative contest will have to make some of the most difficult decisions to face any prime minister since World War II as he or she negotiates a new deal with the bloc. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Thursday that monetary policy will probably have to be loosened within months to deal with the fallout of the Brexit vote.
Johnson’s move “will make it harder for the next U.K. government to arrive at an accommodation with the Europeans,” London-based Eurasia Group analysts Mujitaba Rahman and Charles Lichfield wrote in a note to clients. Johnson “would have been more likely, in our view, to renege on the ‘Leave’ campaign’s commitment to control EU immigration in order to ensure near-full membership of the single market.”
Launching her bid at a news conference in London, May dismissed the idea of doing such a deal. The home secretary had been in favor of staying in the EU but kept a low profile during the referendum campaign.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she told reporters. “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU. No attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”
It was not until late Thursday afternoon that Gove appeared before the cameras.
“While Boris has great attributes he was not capable of uniting that team and leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped,” he told the BBC. “As someone who had argued consistently that we should leave the European Union, and as someone who’s experienced at the highest levels in the cabinet, I felt it had to fall to me.”
Find Out More: Who Will Take the Conservative Crown?
The race could boil down to a duel between Home Secretary Theresa May, now installed as the favorite, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove. Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom are the other candidates.
That decision scuppered Johnson’s chances, according to Andrew Gimson, the ex-mayor’s biographer.
“With Gove he was very formidable,” Gimson said in an interview. “Without Gove and others, it was very difficult to see how he could get down to the final two.”
Tory lawmakers will whittle down the five candidates in the race in a series of votes until two are left. The first round of voting is on Tuesday. The party as a whole, which had been seen as more pro-Johnson than its parliamentarians, will then choose between the two in a postal ballot.
Johnson, Britain’s most flamboyant mainstream politician, provided a major boost to the “Leave” campaign when he decided to back Brexit, becoming its highest-profile campaigner. But it led to allegations from other senior politicians in the Tory party that he’d done so only to increase his chances of succeeding Cameron. He had been a proven election winner for the Tories, having twice been voted in as mayor in a city that predominantly votes for the Labour Party.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, the man who challenged Margaret Thatcher for the Tory leadership in 1990, delivered a scathing verdict on Johnson.
“He’s ripped the Tory party apart, he has created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life,” Heseltine was cited as saying by Inside Housing magazine at a conference in London. “He’s knocked billions off the value of the savings of the British people. He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns, and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it.”
Pro-Brexit Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom also said Thursday she’ll run for the top job. Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced their candidacies Wednesday. Bookmakers made May the favorite, ahead of Gove.
May has the support of 60 Tory lawmakers so far, according to a tally on the Conservative Home website. Crabb has 24, Gove 13, Fox eight and Leadsom five. There are a total of 330 Tories in the House of Commons.
“Our country needs strong, proven leadership to steer us through this period of economic uncertainty and to secure the best possible terms” in the exit negotiations with the bloc, May told reporters. “The job now is about uniting the party, uniting the country, securing the union, and negotiating the best possible deal for Britain.”
May stressed her experience as the longest-serving home secretary since the 19th century, comparing her lack of flamboyance with Johnson’s exuberant style of politics.
In doing so, she “established herself as the grown-up candidate,” Gimson said. “She looked magisterial.”
May said there could be no question of an early general election, echoing statements Wednesday by Crabb, who, like her, campaigned to stay in the bloc. Fox also said he wouldn’t seek a snap election.
Gove said he wouldn’t be “hurried or hassled” into triggering the mechanism that would set off the two-year process of U.K. withdrawal from the EU, known as Article 50. May said that the new government would need to agree on a negotiation strategy first, so “Article 50 should not be invoked before the end of this year.”
Asked whether he’d give Johnson a place in his cabinet, the justice secretary replied that “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
The CBI business lobby said it was “imperative” that the candidates present their detailed proposals for the future. “While companies are used to change and will rise to the challenge, what’s needed now is a plan which sets out the principles that should underpin our new relationship with Europe and how they will be achieved,” Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director-general, said in an statement.
Fox, the outsider with bookmakers, laid out his plans at a news conference in London, saying his priority was to get “as good a free-trade deal for the U.K. as possible, without giving back anything in terms of free movement.”
Meanwhile, British media gave conflicting reports about the possibility of a challenge to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a motion of no confidence in him Tuesday. The BBC was among those reporting that Angela Eagle, one of many who have quit his shadow cabinet, was planning to make a formal announcement.