- Gove unexpectedly declares candidacy with just hours to go
- Home Secretary declares she’s contender to unify Tory party
The race to be Britain’s next prime minister was upended after Justice Secretary Michael Gove entered at the last minute with a savage attack on initial front-runner Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May cast herself as the Conservative Party’s unifying candidate.
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 resigned 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.”
After Thursday morning’s rush of events, the contest to succeed David Cameron is looking like a three-horse race, with the winner having to make some of the most difficult decisions to face any prime minister since World War II.
Gove started a dramatic run of developments by announcing he’d reversed a previous decision to stay out of the race and back Johnson, the former mayor of London and Britain’s most flamboyant mainstream politician. The two men had together led the successful Brexit campaign.
“I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future,” Gove said in a statement. “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Shortly afterward, May, who’d been in favor of staying in the EU but kept a low profile during the referendum campaign, formally launched her bid to become premier at a news conference in London.
“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.
“I know I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars,” she said. “I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve -- I just get on with the job in front of me.”
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.
Johnson, as the most prominent Brexiteer, had been seen as a favorite to replace Cameron. But Gove’s surprise announcement and May’s potential appeal to the party undermined Johnson’s candidacy even before he makes a formal announcement. Bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc made May favorite to win the contest, with Gove in second place and Johnson dropping into third place.
May said there could be no question of rerunning the EU referendum or 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 call a snap election.
“I have repeatedly said that I do not want to be prime minister,” Gove said in his statement. “That has always been my view. But events since last Thursday have weighed heavily with me.” He said that in the next few days he’d lay out a plan “which I hope can provide unity and change."
Leadsom, also a prominent Brexiteer, said on Twitter: “Delighted to say I’m running for the Conservatives Leadership. Let’s make the most of the Brexit opportunities!”
The home secretary said the government should no longer seek to reduce Britain’s budget deficit by 2020, softening one of the key tenets of Cameron’s 2015 pre-election manifesto to eliminate the gap altogether. One of the warnings issued by the “Remain” camp before the referendum was that Brexit would have an impact on the country’s public finances and make further austerity necessary.
Nominations for the leadership contest close at noon in London. The first round of voting among Conservative lawmakers is scheduled for Tuesday. The candidates will be whittled down over a number of rounds to a final two, to be voted on by the full party membership.