LONDON — Boris Johnson took a step closer to becoming the next British prime minister on Thursday after he topped the ballot from Conservative lawmakers in the first phase of the Tory leadership contest.
Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary, will now go head-to-head with Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, over the next month before Conservative Party members vote on which of the two will become the next leader of the party and prime minister. A decision is expected the week beginning July 22.
Johnson cemented his position as the overwhelming favorite after he won a whopping 160 of 313 votes cast by Conservative lawmakers. During the early stages of the contest, it became clear that Johnson was so far out in front that the real battle in this phase would be for second place. Hunt narrowly beat Michael Gove, the environment secretary, by two votes.
The ruling Conservative Party is seeking a new leader following the resignation of Theresa May, who failed at her No. 1 job — to deliver Brexit — after nearly three years in the position.
The two remaining candidates in the race will now take part in a series of campaign stops around the country. The Conservative Party members — about 160,000 people — will then make the final call.
Johnson is one of Britain’s best known politicians. He is beloved by supporters who say he is a lovable rogue who can inject optimism into British politics and is the best person to deliver the Brexit he campaigned for during the 2016 European Union referendum. His critics say he has a loose relationship with the truth and will say almost anything to further his career.
In this first phase of the race, Conservative lawmakers in Westminster held a series of votes, whittling away the leadership hopefuls until there were only two left.
Rumors were swirling that Johnson’s supporters were possibly lending votes tactically so they could ensure the final lineup they wanted. “Johnson hatches plot to knock out Gove,” was the headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. The voting is done in secret, so it’s impossible to know for sure how anyone voted.
Only two names go forward on the final ballot put to the members. Many think that Johnson may have preferred to face Hunt over Gove, a forensic debater who backed Brexit from the beginning.
Johnson is as colorful as he is controversial, but his strategy in the leadership race so far has been to play it safe. He has limited his appearances with the media, even skipping one of the two televised leadership debates. He has also been accused of softening his position on Britain’s departure date.
During the BBC debate on Tuesday, Johnson refused to guarantee that Britain would leave the E.U. by Oct. 31, deal or no deal. Johnson had previously said that Britain “must” leave by then, but during the debate he would only say that it was “eminently feasible.”
Hunt is an affable politician and considered by some to be the continuity candidate — he’s dubbed “Theresa May in trousers” by the British media. Hunt voted “remain” in the E.U. referendum, but he is something of a born- again Brexiteer, saying he would now vote in favor of Brexit if he had the chance. He argues that his stint as foreign secretary has helped him build good relationships in the E.U. that he could capitalize on.
Hunt told Sky News on Thursday morning that Britain “can do better than Boris Johnson as the next prime minister of our country. We can choose someone who the European Union are actually going to talk to.”
The leadership contest began early this month with 10 contestants putting their name forward. The star of the race was arguably Rory Stewart, a rank outsider who made it further than anyone expected.
Stewart, Britain’s international development secretary, has an unusual backstory — he served as a deputy governor in Iraq, walked across Afghanistan and taught at Harvard. He was also forced to deny allegations this week that he once worked as a spy.
But the origins of the Rorymania that gripped the British public can be traced to Stewart’s unique and quirky campaign that saw him tour the country and post selfie-style videos. He also pitched himself as the candidate telling difficult truths about Brexit. In the first television debate, Stewart compared other candidates’ approach to Brexit to trying to cram too many bags into a garbage bin while saying “believe in the bin.”
Stewart seemed capable of reaching people who don’t necessarily vote Conservative, and even won praise from some political opponents. But not enough members of the small electorate he actually needed to win over — the Conservative Party lawmakers — backed him. His admittedly “lackluster” performance during the second television debate probably didn’t help, either. He was knocked out of the race on Wednesday evening.
The two remaining finalists will now be appealing to a new audience — Conservative Party members, who tend on the whole to be older, whiter and more right-wing than the British public.
Much can happen over the next few weeks, but it still seems the race is Johnson’s to lose.