The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to inherit Britain’s Brexit mess? A lot of candidates do, with fractures over how to fix it.

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LONDON — One of the candidates is on a walking tour of the country, stopping along the way to share uncomfortably close selfie videos — dental work and all — in which he vows to bring “love” back into British politics.

Another, the front-runner, faces potential prosecution for allegedly lying to the public.

A motley crew of nine others is burning up the chat apps, dangling cabinet posts in exchange for ever-so-crucial endorsements.

And hanging over it all is this question: Will the men and women vying to become Britain’s next prime minister be prepared to drive the country over the cliff edge that is a no-deal Brexit? Might they even relish the chance? 

The race for 10 Downing Street is only days old, following the resignation announcement last week of Prime Minister Theresa May. But it’s already shaping up to be a wild, unpredictable and hugely consequential contest for a country caught in the purgatory of a European Union exit that never seems to end. Whoever emerges victorious in the coming weeks will determine the nature of Britain’s ultimate departure — or whether there is a departure at all. 

But it won’t be the 66 million-strong British public that gets to decide who leads the nation. Instead, it will be the 313 Tory members of the British Parliament who choose two finalists from among their own ranks. Then the 120,000 paid-up members of the Conservative Party will make the final call. 

As with the Democratic presidential primary in the United States, a clear favorite has emerged among oddsmakers. But also like the Democrats, no one appears particularly intimidated by him. 

A record 11 lawmakers have already declared their candidacies — nearly half the number of Democratic aspirants in a country one-fifth the size. More are likely on the way, a reflection of the fact that, at a time of extreme turbulence for Britain, no one knows what a prime minister is supposed to look like anymore.

“Brexit has smashed the old politics. Things that were previously unthinkable now seem possible,” said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe program at King’s College London. “The straitjacket of centrist orthodoxy has been shaken off, and no one knows where we’ll land.”

Just one measure of how radically expectations have shifted: The front-runner is Boris Johnson, the mop-haired former foreign secretary and London mayor who often hides his intelligence behind buffoonish antics. Not long ago, he was widely considered too irreverent and intemperate to be trusted with the keys to Downing Street. 

Johnson — whom a critic once described as having “more positions on Europe than the Kama Sutra” — was ordered Wednesday to appear in court to face allegations he abused his public office by misleading voters in the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Many among Britain’s pro-Remain camp — which has a slim majority in polls — see him as a reckless opportunist who will wreck the country if it helps his chances of achieving power.

But in a party whose members increasingly hunger for Brexit at any cost, Johnson has positioned himself as the candidate perhaps most willing to gun the engines and launch Britain into the unknown.

“We will leave the E.U. on 31 October, deal or no deal,” he recently promised, referring to the latest — and perhaps last — deadline for Britain to agree to departure terms.

The remark was cheered by Conservatives who look at the results of the recent European parliamentary elections, in which Nigel Farage’s nascent ­Brexit Party trounced the Tories, and see an existential threat. Who better to outdo Farage than a leading Brexiteer like Johnson, his supporters say.

He is “the man to beat, the agenda-setter and early front-runner,” Eurasia Group’s Mujtaba Rahman concluded in a briefing note this week.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll stay there. The history of Conservative Party leadership contests shows that the initial front-runner rarely emerges on top. 

Johnson was also among the early favorites in 2016, following the resignation of David Cameron. But his candidacy blew up on the launchpad when his own campaign manager chose to run against him. The potential for another implosion is always present. As Rahman noted, quoting an anonymous Tory: “The person who might defeat Boris is Boris.”

At least 10 other lawmakers are feverishly positioning themselves should Johnson stumble. The contest will include speeches, debates and the other usual trappings of a political campaign. But because fellow lawmakers will winnow the field before party members have their say, much of the jockeying happens behind the scenes, with candidates trading offers and promises in the privacy of their cellphones.

“I imagine that WhatsApp is close to meltdown,” Menon said. 

Some of the candidates, such as former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, are vying for support from the Tory faction that’s willing to see Britain leave without a deal — and may even prefer it.

Economists warn that could expose Britain to untold tumult, with trade relationships mangled and jobs on the chopping block. But to devout Brexit believers, it’s preferable to the compromises entailed with the deal that May and her government reached after nearly two years of tortuous negotiations with the E.U.

Other candidates dismiss the prospect of no deal, while insisting they can achieve what May failed to do: pass a withdrawal plan through Parliament.

The contender attracting the most attention this week was Rory Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan (and wrote a book about it), helped administer the occupation in Iraq (and wrote two books about it) and tutored Princes William and Harry (no books, of course).

Nerdy, charming and proof that Britain loves its eccentrics, the international development secretary is arguably the most unusual candidate in the contest. He is a clear underdog, but also winning the authenticity game, one awkward video at a time.

He is currently touring the country, filming close-ups of himself and inviting people to pop around for a chat. “Now — if anyone is around and wants to talk — in Kew Gardens — for the next hour,” he recently tweeted.

Dismissive of Johnson’s no-deal bluster, Stewart wants to set up a “citizens assembly” to find a Brexit compromise.

The field also includes Michael Gove, Britain’s energetic environment secretary, who was accused of backstabbing Johnson in the lead-up to the 2016 leadership race. Gove was a believer in Brexit from the start and, along with Johnson, helped to lead the official Vote Leave campaign.

Unlike Johnson, however, Gove has cautioned that a no-deal exit will be costly. He has pushed instead for May’s deal, or something close to it. 

But among the shrinking ranks of Tories who favor staying in the E.U., there’s deep skepticism that any agreement could satisfy a majority in Parliament.

Phillip Lee, a pro-Remain Conservative, said Britain is down to two options: a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum. None of the prospective prime ministers, however, are willing to countenance the latter.

“All of the candidates are presenting ideas that end in a no-deal,” said Lee, a medical doctor and an MP since 2010. “I’m waiting for someone to stand who is putting forward a deliverable alternative to a hard Brexit.”

Lee, who faces a vote of no confidence this weekend from his local Tory association, said he is sticking with the party. But he acknowledged that has not been easy, as positions on the E.U. have hardened.

When rank-and-file members have their say on the next leader of Britain this summer, Lee said, he has little doubt who will emerge.

“Whichever hard Brexiteer makes it to the final round wins,” he said. “That’s the reality of it.”

Prime minister hopeful Boris Johnson to appear in court over allegations he lied in the Brexit campaign

House Speaker John Bercow on Theresa May, Brexit and why he won’t leave — yet

Theresa May to resign, make way for new prime minister, after Brexit failures

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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