Jun 13, 2019

Boris Johnson is steamrolling his way to Downing Street

Back Boris! Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

There is little standing in the way of Boris Johnson becoming Britain’s next prime minister.

Why it matters: Johnson is a brash Brexiteer who has vowed to take the U.K. out of the EU without a deal if one can’t be reached by October. He’s often praised for his charisma and criticized for his lack of substance on policy and penchant for provocative rhetoric. He also has a friend in the Oval Office.

The latest: Step one in the two-step process to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader, and thus prime minister, officially began on Thursday.

  • Johnson got off to a massive head start after 114 Conservative Members of Parliament selected him — far more than went for Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (43), Environment Secretary Michael Gove (37), or former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (27).
  • Seven candidates had enough backers to move on to the next round, with three others eliminated. The voting will continue until the list is whittled down to two, whom the party’s 160,000 members will then choose between.

Between the lines: This was supposed to be the hard part for the former mayor of London, who has long been considered a shoo-in if he makes the final two.

  • Polled last week, 43% of the members supported Johnson, compared to 12% for Gove and 10% for Raab.

What to watch: “The pro-Brexit support is coming home to Boris, causing problems for Raab, whose candidacy is based on pursuing a hard Brexit,” Ben Roback of the Cicero Group political consultancy emails from London.

  • “Hunt is pitching himself as the ‘serious leader’ and Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, is making his compelling backstory the central pillar of his campaign. But the remaining candidates are all unquestionably chasing Boris Johnson.”
  • "The next key development to watch is whether the less-supported candidates drop out before the second round of voting next Tuesday."

Flashback: Johnson was the front-runner to replace David Cameron back in 2016, before a bizarre split with Gove cleared the way for May.

  • He's long been seen by many as a punchline. I recall a State Department briefer grinning when he was told Johnson had been named foreign secretary in 2016, only to turn serious when it dawned that this wasn't a joke.
  • This time around Johnson's playing it safe — putting forward a serious face, avoiding major gaffes and even trimming his trademark shaggy hair.

The bottom line: If he does triumph, Johnson will take ownership of the most intractable dispute in recent British political history and a divided party that has fallen to once-unthinkable depths in the polls. There are clearly many who think he's just the man for the job.

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