After more than a week of campaigning, intriguing and infighting among Conservative Party lawmakers, Britain's foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, won the right Thursday to take on his more famous and charismatic predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the final phase of the race to become the next prime minister.
Hunt was the second choice of Conservative lawmakers, well behind Johnson, and now the two men will compete for the votes of around 160,000 members of the party who will next month select a successor to Prime Minister Theresa May. Johnson won 160 votes, and Hunt 77.
Johnson, whose optimistic, bombastic and entertaining speeches at party conferences have made him a favorite of activists, is supremely well placed to win the vote. The party members are disproportionately older, whiter and more male than the general population and appear to favor Brexit at any cost, something that Johnson has championed since a 2016 referendum that he helped win.
According to the rumour mill, the mild-mannered Hunt was the candidate that Johnson most wanted to face in the runoff, and all day Thursday there was speculation in Parliament of tactical voting by his supporters to eliminate Michael Gove, the environment secretary.
Gove was Johnson's nemesis in 2016, the last time the Conservative leadership was contested, and in the first of two votes held Thursday, Hunt had fallen slightly behind Gove.
Yet, it was Gove who sunk Johnson's push for the top job in 2016, and some lawmakers feared the consequences for the party of a vicious fight between the old rivals. By early evening it was announced that Hunt had pushed Gove into third place in the final ballot, with 75 votes, eliminating him from the contest.
Though Hunt opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum campaign, he now supports it. But lingering suspicions about the depth of his commitment, coupled with his decided lack of charisma on the campaign trail, have led opponents to call him "Theresa May in trousers."
Hunt's public utterances have not always been as vanilla as his critics claim. He once likened the European Union to the Soviet Union and caused some astonishment when he accidentally described his Chinese wife as Japanese.
But foreign policy analysts say that he performed significantly better in his post than Johnson, who never looked comfortable at the Foreign Office and whose careless language was widely blamed for worsening the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who is being held in prison in Iran.
Hunt will now have the opportunity to make his pitch for the top job and subject Johnson to some scrutiny in a series of debates for party members around the country.
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Under Britain's parliamentary system the prime minister is not directly elected but is the leader of the party with a majority in Parliament. That means that if the dominant party's leadership changes, so does the prime minister.
Hunt's father was a senior Royal Navy officer and, like Johnson, he studied at Oxford University and attended an expensive private school.
A businessman before he went into politics, Hunt argues that he is well equipped to negotiate a new Brexit agreement with the European Union. And he showed his soothing manner and political skills by surviving a long stint as the health secretary — a difficult job for a Conservative politician, particularly at a time of squeezed public spending.
One big question is how tough Hunt will be on Johnson and whether he will raise doubts about his honesty, reliability and competence for the position of prime minister. Although Hunt criticised Johnson for ducking out of one TV debate, it was another candidate, Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, who was the most vocal in attacking the front-runner.
The other central focus of the next few weeks will be what Johnson says about Brexit, given that he is very likely to emerge as the next prime minister.
Although hard-line Brexit supporters believe that he has promised them that Britain will leave the European Union, with or without an agreement on the next deadline of Oct. 31, Johnson has been less explicit in public.
During a BBC debate Tuesday, Johnson described that timeline as "eminently feasible," a phrasing that left significant room for manoeuvre.
Senior Conservatives hope that the next phase of the contest will not expose too many internal divisions. The prospect of a race between Johnson and Gove, reviving one of the most treacherous and poisonous rivalries of recent British political history, had sent shudders through the party ranks.
The two were friends as students at Oxford, and both were journalists before being elected to Parliament. Both also campaigned for Brexit during the 2016 referendum and, when David Cameron resigned as prime minister in its aftermath, Gove supported Johnson as the successor.
Gove then changed his mind, ran himself and justified his betrayal by arguing that Johnson was not equipped to be prime minister. That wrecked Johnson's first attempt to win the Conservative Party leadership and opened the way for May to seize the crown instead.
Three years later, and restored to the Cabinet, Gove also posed a threat to Johnson because he was a supporter of Brexit before him. He therefore had good credentials with Conservative Party members.
But Gove's campaign got off to a disastrous start when he admitted having used cocaine two decades ago, an acknowledgement that opened him to the charge of hypocrisy over his later actions as education and justice secretary.
Written by: Stephen Castle
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES