AFTER TWO days of voting, Conservative MPs have chosen two of their colleagues to proceed to the next stage of the leadership election – a runoff in which the party’s 160,000 members will choose the winner. They are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary. Johnson got more than half the vote with 160. Hunt just passed Michael Gove, the environment secretary, 77 votes to 75.
Boris Johnson’s ascent to prime minister now looks even more likely than it did a week ago. Johnson’s biggest problem was always winning over his fellow Conservative MPs. He has never been much of a team player: he has spent more time lining his pockets (in one year he earned £540,000 in journalism and public speaking) than campaigning for his colleagues. He too has had a lackluster and lazy performance in the dispatch booth in parliament. But he is adored by party members at home who appreciate his Bertie Wooster speeches with a thesaurus and his flamboyant style. They also agree with him on Brexit.
Hunt is unlikely to be able to stop his momentum. The Foreign Secretary is, in many ways, an impressive figure. He inherited a marginal seat and turned it into a safe one. He was health secretary for six years, longer than anyone since the creation of the NHS. He has been a much better foreign secretary than Johnson, his predecessor: Foreign office experts say he inherited a demoralized and disoriented department and quickly revitalized it. But Hunt is a sensitive man trying to win over a party gone a little crazy: obsessed with Brexit, furious at the way Brussels has treated Britain and hunting for unicorns. Most party members say they support a no-deal Brexit despite overwhelming evidence about the damage it would do to the economy. Hunt also carries the Conservative Party equivalent of the brand of Cain: he voted to stay in 2016. So while he claims he is now determined to get Brexit done, he draws comparisons to Theresa May, who hardcore Brexiters say failed delivering Brexit not because of an intractable problem and a hung parliament, but because she didn’t “believe”.
Johnson would have faced a much tougher fight against Michael Gove. Gove is one of the party’s most accomplished debaters: quick-witted, often funny and, unlike Johnson, steeped in political detail. He also has an appetite to go for the jugular. Gove could have done Johnson real damage. By contrast, Mr. Hunt is too emollient a figure (his critics of him would call him “bland”) to burst Boris’s balloon. Once again, luck is with the favourite.
Conservative MPs are also acting out of self-preservation by choosing Messrs Hunt and Johnson to end the race. Parliamentarians knew that a contest between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove could easily have degenerated into the modern equivalent of the contest between Polyneices and Eteocles, who murdered each other in their determination to rule Thebes (Mr Johnson, reading classic books at Oxford, he is fond of classical references). The two men were close friends at Oxford and beyond, with Mr Johnson playing the leading role and Mr Gove a courtier of sorts. Johnson chose Gove to run his campaign for prime minister in 2016. But then Gove turned on his friend and former mentor and announced that he did not think he was fit to be prime minister. By electing Mr Hunt, MPs have avoided bloodshed and distanced their party from one of the great psychodramas of recent years.
The partying may have limited the potential damage of the race, but it certainly hasn’t escaped Scott. The two surviving candidates are products of private schools and Oxford University, Mr Johnson Eton and Balliol, Mr Hunt Charterhouse and Magdalen. The Tories removed the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in the country with £1 in his pocket (Sajid Javid), the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger (Michael Gove) and a major foreign office aviator turned author-turned-academic brimming with original ideas (Rory Stewart). Johnson refused to appear in the first televised debate and parliamentary lobbying campaigns. His team also reportedly used tactics worthy of the Oxford Union (of which he was once president) rather than parliament: “lend” votes to various finalists (by encouraging loyal supporters to vote for them) to eliminate candidates, such as Mr Stewart and Mr Gove, who could cause you more trouble. “There have been lies and lies and lies and a lot of pomposity,” was the summary of a Tory MP’s career thus far.
Whatever the truth of these rumors (and it is impossible to know given the secrecy of the polls), it is important for the future of the Conservative Party that some of the personal damage that has been done during this leadership campaign and its predecessor is repaired. Messrs. Johnson and Stewart need to make amends (and Mr. Stewart needs to swallow his pride and go back on his promise that he will not serve in the Johnson administration). Stewart has shown that a conservative can still excite middle voters. He would also make a wonderful foreign secretary.
It is even more important, from the point of view of the Conservative Party, that Messrs Johnson and Gove bury the hatchet. Mr Gove is that rare thing: a Brexiteer who understands the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. He, too, is endowed with the same strengths that Mr. Johnson lacks: the ability to reinvigorate conservative-minded government departments, a broad interest in public policy, and an impressive mastery of detail. In an ideal world, Gove would make an excellent CEO for Johnson’s chairman. But then, in an ideal world, Polyneices and Eteocles wouldn’t have killed each other.