Boris Johnson On The Rise In Race For Conservative Party Leader

Boris Johnson seems to be the leader in the race to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader. Whether that's a good thing is another question.

Theresa May’s announcement that she would be stepping aside as Conservative Party leader on June 7th, and would step down as Prime Minister upon the selection of a new party leader. That process, which involves a two-step process that includes a vote by Tory MP’s to narrow the list of contenders down to two contenders and then a contest between those two top among registered members of the party, will take up to six weeks to resolve. Already, though, it’s apparent that former London Mayor and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the man to beat:

LONDON — Only one person, the joke doing the rounds in Parliament goes, can stop the disheveled, blond-haired, crowd-pleasing former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, from becoming the country’s next prime minister.

That is Mr. Johnson himself.

One of Britain’s most recognizable, and now most divisive politicians, Mr. Johnson has a history of verbal gaffes, a poor record as a minister and many enemies in Parliament, not to mention among the voters who reject Brexit, which he helped persuade Britons to embrace in a 2016 referendum.

But his charisma, flair for publicity and record of winning two elections as mayor of London make him the runaway favorite in a crowded field to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May, according to bookmakers.

A victory for Mr. Johnson would have significant repercussions and could increase the prospects of Britain hurtling out of the European Union without an agreement at the end of October, despite the potentially dire economic consequences.

It also sets up a possible constitutional showdown with Parliament, which has shown that the one thing it can agree on is that there should never be a no-deal Brexit. If Britain’s new prime minister — whoever it is — was willing to exit the bloc without a deal, it is unclear if Parliament would have the power to stop the move, according to constitutional scholars.

“A new leader will have the opportunity to do things differently and have the momentum of a new administration,” Mr. Johnson said on Friday, according to Reuters, illustrating why Britain could be headed into turbulent waters. “We will leave the E.U. on October 31, deal or no deal. The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal.”

Not only is Mr. Johnson a firm proponent of Brexit — albeit one who is instinctively more flexible than Mrs. May — but several European Union leaders have hinted they regard the idea of dealing with him as a nightmare come true. They likely will be loath to make him any concessions.

As a child Mr. Johnson famously announced his ambition to become “world king,” and even if the job he now seeks is not quite that, the stars could be aligning for him.


There is no shortage of other contenders should Mr. Johnson falter.

The field is crowded because Conservative lawmakers use leadership contests to raise their profiles and put down markers for the future, or to amass a bloc of votes that they can use in bargaining with front-runners for future jobs.

Under its leadership rules, Conservative Party lawmakers will whittle down probably around a dozen candidates to a shortlist of two. Party members, who are thought to number around 120,000, will then choose the winner.

Mr. Johnson is wildly popular among them, judging by his reception at party conferences, so the assumption is that if he can get onto the shortlist then he will win the keys to 10 Downing Street.

While the Conservative Party is badly split on the Brexit issue, the serious contenders are likely to argue that if Mrs. May’s unpopular Brexit plan cannot be renegotiated, Britain should be willing to leave without any agreement, despite potentially dire economic consequences.

Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab, who both resigned from the cabinet over Brexit, are likely to run, as is Penny Mordaunt, another Brexit hard-liner who recently became Britain’s first female defense secretary, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary.

More moderate contenders are likely to include the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary Matt Hancock, the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, and the home secretary, Sajid Javid.

Some analysts have suggested the Conservatives may turn to a more moderate candidate, like Mr. Hunt, who in the 2016 referendum supported remaining in the bloc, like Mrs. May, but who has in recent months tried to burnish his hard-Brexit credentials.

But Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, said the party had come to regret asking Mrs. May, a formerly anti-Brexit lawmaker, or Remainer, to achieve the ultimate anti-Europe outcome, leaving the bloc.

“They have tried to deliver a Leave project with a Remainer. It has not gone well at all,” Mr. Goodwin said. “I don’t think the Conservative Party — Parliamentary party or membership — will make that mistake again.”

Many are also looking for a campaigner to lead them into a next general election that, given the Brexit deadlock, could come soon, pitching them into battle both with Mr. Farage, to their right, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to their left.

Curt Mills at The National Interest offers his own insight:

Johnson is the odds-on favorite. Like Joe Biden in the United States, Johnson’s campaigning as if he will soon govern. Johnson said Friday, in Switzerland: “We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.” The Financial Times signaled lukewarm openness to a Johnson cabinet Friday, if only to stave off a victory by hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“Siding with the Leave campaign because his great rival, former chancellor George Osborne, backed Remain and then failing for two and a half years to come up with a plan for what leaving the EU would involve, was monstrously irresponsible,” Camilla Cavendish wrote in an editorial. “Yet it is precisely that opportunism, a willingness to tack with the wind, which makes Mr Johnson so capable of reinvention.”

What Britain doesn’t have is time—time to further dither on Brexit, time for a protracted Conservative Party leader contest, and little time to prepare for a likely raucous visit by President Donald Trump. A state dinner in London is to be held June 3. Corbyn has already boycotted the controversial occupant of the White House. It will fall on May—who Trump has quarreled with—and her presumably anointed successor to host the American leader, who is bringing all of his adult children with him, including White House senior counselors Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Media reports emphasize that Johnson and Trump are tight, spiritual kindreds even. A former senior administration official emphasizes to me that the story is far more complicated.

As noted, this isn’t the first time that Johnson has seemed to be on the verge of achieving his obvious dream of becoming Prime Minister. Just three years ago, when David Cameron stepped aside as Conservative Party leader due to the results of the Brexit referendum, Johnson was among the top contenders for the position of Tory leader. Instead, he ended up abruptly pulling out of the race, a move that effectively removed the last remaining impediment to Theresa May becoming head of the party and leading to a quicker than expected at the time process to pick a successor to Cameron. Instead of Prime Minister, Johnson had to settle for the post of Foreign Secretary, a position he held until resigning last year as part of the rebellion inside of May’s Cabinet regarding the direction of Brexit negotiations.

The difference between Johnson’s failed bid for party leadership three years ago and today, of course, is the extent to which the Brexit situation has spiraled out of control for May, largely because of her own inability to stay in line with a Conservative Party that has become far more pro-Brexit than it was three years ago. It was clear that things were not going well when, in a historic rebuke, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that May had negotiated with the E.U. over the course of the past two and a half years. That rejections shook British politics to its core and led to an intra-party challenge to May’s leadership that could have led to her ouster. May survived that vote, but was clearly weakened by it and this made her ability to put together a Brexit plan that Parliament would accept.

As things stand, the European Union has given the United Kingdom until October 31st to come up with a Brexit deal acceptable to both parties. Originally, of course, the deadline was supposed to be on March 29th, but when it became clear as that date approached that there would be no deal approved by Parliament, the E.U. negotiators acceded to requests from May to extend the deadline. At first, the deadline was extended to mid-April but that was quickly extended another six months when it was clear that there was no way that May would be able to come close to a deal that would clear Parliament in time. This extension came after the E.U. leadership had initially balked at the idea of extending the deadline, but the domestic political situation in the United Kingdom made it clear that a mid-April deadline was impractical. Additionally, May said in late March that she would leave office once a Brexit Deal is complete. Now, of course, she will be leaving the office with the details of Brexit still very much up in the air, leaving it to her successor to come up with a solution to a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

Additionally, this period has seen the rise of a new pro-Brexit force in the form of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which is in many ways the successor to UKIP, the party he formed roughly a decade ago when someone who favored Britain leaving the E.U. was seen as a political gadfly. According to current polling, Farage’s party is expected to perform very well in the European Parliament elections that were conducted in the United Kingdom on Thursday. Additionally, other polling has shown the Brexit Party in a fairly strong third place in hypothetical General Election polling. If, as expected, the Brexit Party outperforms the Tories in the E.U. elections then that will likely enure to the benefit of pro-Brexit leaders in the Conservative Party, of which Johnson is by far the loudest voice.

Johnson, of course, does not come without his own degree of controversy. Between various aspects of his past and his bombastic style (not to mention his haircut) he has often been referred to as a British version of Donald Trump. While the analogy is not a perfect one, it isn’t very far off either. Much like Trump, Johnson has relied quite often on a populist message to rally supporters behind him, and he seems to share many of Trump’s views on the European Union and other issues. Where May and Trump often clashed both in public and in private, one imagines that a Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump would get along quite nicely.. While that may bode well for the continuation of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, it may also signal policy changes in both nations that will not be good in the long term.

In any event, the stars seem to be aligning for Boris Johnson this time around. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    There are no good alternatives in the UK right now. Johnson is a populist nutter. Corbyn is a Marxist anti-semitic nutter. Farage is a ubernationalist nutter. I always expect the Conservatives to be more sensible. To see the party of Thatcher fall to this is … disheartening. That damned Brexit vote is going to turn out to be the ruination of Britain in every way imaginable.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “Hold my beer. Watch this!”

  3. Kylopod says:


    That damned Brexit vote is going to turn out to be the ruination of Britain in every way imaginable.

    And meanwhile, Putin gives his creepy smile and says “Why… so… serious?”

  4. drj says:

    I think it is wrong to focus too much on Johnson.

    Admittedly, he is the odds-on favorite to become the next Conservative leader.

    But his party has no majority in Parliament (no party or voting bloc does, at the moment). So it’s not clear that he will manage to become PM even if he wins the Conservative leadership contest.

    Second, Brexit is a problem that cannot be solved. Even if Johnson is willing to tolerate empty supermarket shelves in the wake of a no-deal Brexit, it’s all but certain that Parliament won’t.

    So the moment the UK falls off the cliff edge, it’s either back to the negotiating table for Johnson (with the EU holding all the cards) or a no confidence vote.

    Regardless of who will be the next PM, his or her room for maneuver is extremely limited.

  5. Kathy says:

    “Out fo the frying pan and into the fire” is not advice on what to do.

  6. Kathy says:


    Second, Brexit is a problem that cannot be solved.

    It’s more like a wound waiting to be self-inflicted.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    And with the Brexit Party waiting in the wings, the Tories are terrified at the possibility of a General Election, because chances are high that they’ll lose a lot of seats.

    I just hope that the EU is fed up enough to bite the bullet and to refuse any further extensions. They’ll probably be too worried about the effects of a no-deal Brexit to NOT provide another six months of extension, especially if Boris asks them for one. But The Oaf is lazy enough that he’s not going to do anything that requires any actual WORK.

    What’s going to really bring out the popcorn is when Boris and Farage go up against each other.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    The first quoted article notes that the leader will be chosen by the estimated 120,000 Conservative Party members, out of a population of 60 million. That’s a tiny fraction of the population even compared to US primary voters, and I read somewhere recently that they skew white and old way more heavily than the Republican Party. Not good. Like the US, will the conservative party destroy itself before it destroys the country?

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: I’ve sometimes felt like the EU might be OK with granting extensions forever with a tacit understanding the Brits can talk about Brexit all they want, as long as they don’t do it.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: I’m sure the EU would love to do that, as long as the EU agencies and multi-national corporations such as Honda and Airbus decide to move stuff out of the U.K.

    The agencies and corporations are getting tired of twiddling their fingers waiting for the U.K. to make up what passes for its mind, however.

  11. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    “There are no good alternatives in the UK what passes for conservative ideology/policy right now.
    Thought I’d fix that for you.

    ETA: “Like the US, will the conservative party destroy itself before it destroys the country?”
    Alas, no. Like the US, the people are too stupid to fix the problem.

  12. Gustopher says:

    Looking at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, I really want to know why “good hair” is lo longer a requirement for success at the highest levels of government.

    There are countless other things wrong with these people, I know, but “sloppy buffoon” is not a good look. Do they seem more authentic? Was there an underrepresented bad hair demographic that they are tapping?

    Also, what do these people look like before they try to look their best?

  13. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher: I’ve noticed that “crazy dictators with weird hair” is very much a thing, from Hitler’s moustache and combover to Fidel’s beard to the Kim Jongs’ troll haircuts to Ahmadinejad’s toupee… it seems almost a requirement for the type.

    BoJo and Trump obviously aren’t dictators, not yet anyway, but they’ve got some of the same character traits, including the narcissism. You’d think narcissists would be more attentive to their appearance, but I actually think they’ve got such a delusional self-image to begin with it leads them ironically to neglect it. They’re kind of like reverse anorexics: they look in the mirror and see the most handsome devil they’ve ever laid eyes upon, and they surround themselves with sycophants unwilling to tell them how ridiculous they actually look. It affects everything on down–how they look, how they sound, how they act. If you’re primed only to listen to what you want to hear, you’re not likely to end up presenting the best of yourself.