The race to become the UK’s next prime minister took a series of extraordinary twists on Thursday that turned the competition on its head.
Just six days after David Cameron said he was stepping down as a result of the country’s Brexit vote, Boris Johnson, the face of the Leave campaign and one of the favorites to replace him, announced he would not be joining the contest to lead the Conservatives.
In a speech in London that was widely expected to kick off his campaign to become Tory leader and therefore automatically become prime minister, Mr. Johnson said: “Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that cannot be me.”
His surprise decision was quickly attributed to the earlier shock announcement by Michael Gove, the justice minister and Mr. Johnson’s comrade-in-arms on the Brexit campaign trail, that he himself would be standing.
“Conservative party members have no forgiveness for opportunism and treachery. ”
Until his announcement, it was widely expected that Mr. Gove would not stand and instead give his support to the former mayor. But in a hastily arranged campaign launch, Mr. Gove said he had concluded that: “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Mr. Gove’s announcement took everyone by surprise, including Conservative members of parliament. Painfully for Mr. Johnson, it also triggered a mass transfer of support to Mr. Gove among MPs. Under leadership contest rules, they choose the two candidates that grassroots members then vote on.
The justice minister is seen as a safer pair of hands than the unpredictable and often showman-like Mr. Johnson, and also saw his star rise during the referendum campaign. However, he had said several times over the past few years that he did not want the top job, unlike Mr. Johnson, who is known to crave it.
Concerns had also been raised about Mr. Johnson’s statements since Britain voted to leave the European Union last week. It was widely thought that he backed the Leave campaign out of political opportunism, and a newspaper column he wrote on Monday suggested he was now seeking to backtrack on the Brexit decision. Mr. Gove’s supporters also view him as disorganized.
Accusations of support and treachery came thick and fast as events unfolded. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tweeted: “Conservative party members have no forgiveness for opportunism and treachery. [They] will be very, very angry if Boris not in final two.”
But Gove supporter Nick Gibb MP said: “Michael Gove is the man the party and country can trust to deliver Brexit. He’s a passionate believer in social justice and a true reformer.” He neglected to mention that just 24 hours earlier he had come out in support of Mr. Johnson.
Many MPs defended their switch in allegiance to Mr. Gove by claiming that the leadership election needed to have a committed Brexiteer on the ballot paper, and that Mr. Gove was a stronger option than Mr. Johnson.
The surprise events came after several other candidates declared their intentions to seek the party leadership, nominations for which had to be submitted by midday Thursday. Long-time interior minister Theresa May was the first big hitter to announce she was standing.
A low-key Remain supporter during the referendum campaign, she said she offered unity in the party and a “positive vision” for the future of the country. She vowed to continue Brexit negotiations. A poll by YouGov this morning, taken when Mr. Johnson was still a likely candidate and Mr. Gove had not yet declared, showed that she was the favorite to win the leadership vote.
It is widely thought she will face-off with Mr. Gove in the grassroots ballot.
Other declared contenders in the race are work and pensions minister Stephen Crabb, Mr. Cameron’s pick; energy minister Andrea Leadsom, a prominent Brexiteer; and former defence minister Liam Fox.
A new leader will be elected by September 9.
David Reay is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org