May Draws Fire From Rivals as Race to Lead Britain Heats Up

  • Leadsom, Gove say next Tory leader should have backed Brexit
  • First round in Conservative leadership election is Tuesday

Three of the candidates to become Britain’s next prime minister turned their fire on frontrunner Theresa May, saying the country would be better led by someone who supported the campaign to take the U.K. out of the European Union.

As Conservative Party lawmakers prepare for the first round of voting on Tuesday, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Liam Fox questioned May’s right to be leader after she backed the “Remain” campaign that lost the June 23 referendum. With momentum building behind May, they also said that the leadership can’t just be decided by lawmakers. Party members must also have a say, even if that prolongs the process, they said.

Stephen Crabb, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom.
Stephen Crabb, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom.
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg, Jack Taylor/Getty Images, Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“The country needs to be led by someone who believes fervently -- and understands --the opportunities of leaving,” Leadsom, who bookmakers rate as May’s closest contender, said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.” “I just don’t think it would be right to have a coronation. People need to have a choice of candidates.”

British politics is being ripped apart by the aftershocks of the referendum result, which is also threatening to tip the economy into recession. The Conservative Party is in the throes of the bitterest leadership contest since Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990 and the Labour Party is in danger of splitting in two as Jeremy Corbyn refuses to step down in the face of widespread opposition from his own lawmakers. 

Andrea Leadsom on The Andrew Marr Show on July 3.
Andrea Leadsom on The Andrew Marr Show on July 3.
Photographer: Jeff Overs/BBC

Economic Stimulus

Policy makers, meanwhile, are trying to shore up the economy, with the Bank of England and the Treasury already signaling over the past days that more stimulus is on the way.

May, who is Home Secretary, has emerged from the turmoil as the favorite to lead the Conservatives. According to the Conservative Home blog, she has the support of 103 of the party’s 330 lawmakers. Gove has 23 lawmakers, Leadsom has 22, Stephen Crabb has 21 andFox has 8.

That’s left her opponents scrabbling to avoid May winning the leadership before the vote goes to the party’s grassroots membership. Gove, who torpedoed Boris Johnson’s ambitions to be prime minister on Thursday, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the next prime minister needs to be “someone who believed in and voted for Britain to leave the EU.”

Divisive Referendum

“It’s preferable to be a Brexiteer than a Remainer,” former Defense Secretary Fox told the BBC’s “Sunday Politics” show.

May dismissed those objections, saying that Britain needs a prime minister who can govern for the whole country after a divisive referendum. 

“They’re not looking for a prime minister who’s just the Brexit prime minister, but a prime minister who can govern for the whole of the country and that’s what’s important,” she said on ITV television’s “Peston on Sunday” program.

She also agreed that the party needs a full election to decide who is the next leader.

"There should be a contest,” she said. “It’s important that members have their opportunity to have a say.”

Conservative lawmakers will vote in the first round of voting on Tuesday. They will eventually whittle the field down to two. Assuming that both candidates stand, the winner will be chosen by the party rank-and-file by Sept. 9.

Stop Corbyn

The Labour Party is also trying to find a way forward after many of its supporters deserted it to back the “Leave” campaign. Former leader Neil Kinnock joined the chorus of senior figures calling on Corbyn to quit after he lost a vote of no confidence among lawmakers last week. Corbyn, who may face a formal leadership challenge in the coming days, says that he still has the support of party members. 

The Sunday Times reported that Corbyn wants to stay on until at least until the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War is published on Wednesday so he can accuse former Prime Minister Tony Blair of war crimes.

“The party is on the edge of a cliff,” said Tom Baldwin, who used to be an adviser to former leader Ed Miliband. He’s worried that the party could break up if Corbyn ends up winning another leadership vote.

Political Limbo

Whoever becomes the next prime minister will face some of the most difficult decisions taken by U.K. leader since World War II. With the country still in a state of political limbo, economic policy makers are uniting to signal they will soon deliver stimulus to protect it from the Brexit fallout.  

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on Friday suggested he is no longer seeking a budget surplus by 2020, a day after Governor Mark Carney indicated the Bank of England may soon cut interest rates.

Amid the political intrigue, leading Conservative candidates used their weekend interviews to present a more human face to the party’s electorate -- which is disproportionately white, retired and pro-Brexit. 

May told Peston that she has “more than 100 cook books.” She also said in interview with the Mail on Sunday that having Type 1 diabetes won’t impact on her ability to cope with the stress of being prime minister. Leadsom told the Sunday Telegraph that she’s “a very committed Christian” who prays “a lot” and only decided to run after a “long conversation” with her three children.

Gove, meanwhile, defended himself from accusations he can’t be trusted after betraying both Johnson and Cameron, with Johnson’s sister, Rachel, describing him as a “political psychopath” in a column for the Mail on Sunday. 

"If you put friendship and personal relations before what is right when you’re a politician, you’re not serving your country," Gove said on the “Marr Show.”

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