LONDON — It was the most striking moment so far in the U.K. Conservative Party’s contest for a new leader. The five remaining candidates were asked during a televised debate to raise their hands if they would let Boris Johnson serve in their Cabinet. Not a single hand went up.
The contenders to replace Johnson are scrambling to distance themselves from the scandal-tainted politician who has resigned as party leader but remains Britain’s prime minister for a few more weeks – despite the fact that most of them have served in his government over the past three years.
Johnson, meanwhile, has largely disappeared from the scene. He has not attended any government emergency meetings about a heat wave that is forecast to bring temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) to Britain.
On Friday, Johnson visited a Royal Air Force base and took a ride in a Typhoon fighter jet, with “Top Gun”-style footage later released by his office. He spent the weekend at Chequers, the country house that comes with the prime minister’s job, throwing a farewell barbecue for staff and friends.
On Monday, Johnson attended the Farnborough Air Show and will return to Parliament for one of the final times as prime minister to extol his own accomplishments ahead of a largely symbolic vote of confidence called by the government in itself.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, likened Johnson to “a sulky teenager in the bedroom, just doing what he wants and shouting at the parents once in a while.”
Political and media attention has turned to his would-be successors, who are slinging dirt at one another as they try to convince Conservative Party members they can rebuild trust in politics and defeat the opposition Labour Party at the next election, due to be held by 2024.
Front-runner Rishi Sunak, who served as Treasury chief under Johnson until he resigned earlier this month, is under attack by rivals for spending billions to keep workers and businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, and raising taxes to help pay for it.
In a televised debate on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Sunak of hiking taxes to the highest level in 70 years. He argued the hikes were necessary to damp down soaring inflation, and accused Truss, who has promised immediate tax cuts, of peddling “something-for-nothing economics.”
Penny Mordaunt, a trade minister who has emerged as a strong challenger in the contest, has appealed in vain for an end to “mudslinging,” much of which has been directed at her. She has been accused by opponents of wanting to make it easier for people to change gender – a hot-button issue for some Conservatives – and of neglecting her government duties in order to prepare her leadership bid.
Conservative lawmakers will hold the latest in a series of elimination votes later Monday to reduce the number of candidates – already slimmed from an initial 11 – from five to four. Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss are widely expected to remain in the contest, with backbench lawmaker Tom Tugendhat or former Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch facing elimination.
Further rounds of voting are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to produce two finalists. The final pair will face a vote by about 180,000 Conservative Party members across the country. The winner is scheduled to be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become prime minister, without the need for a national election.
Fielding said that may prove problematic for the new leader, because he or she will be chosen by a Conservative membership – “primarily white, southern, very well-off” – with political priorities very different to the general electorate as a whole.
Johnson won the Conservatives a commanding parliamentary majority in 2019, but he has been plagued by scandal since then, including being accused of misleading Parliament about government office parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
Johnson clung to power despite being fined by police over “partygate,” but finally quit on July 7 after one scandal too many – appointing a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct – drove ministers to resign en masse.
Cabinet Office Minister Kit Malthouse, a long-time Johnson ally, argued that the party’s testy debate was healthy, and predicted Conservatives would reunite in a “spirit of harmony and love” after the leadership campaign.
But Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that was overly optimistic.
“The manner of Johnson’s departure unfortunately injected quite a lot of poison into the (party) bloodstream,” he said. “It will take time to work its way out.”
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