AFTER TWO days of voting Tory MPs have chosen two of their colleagues to go through to the next stage of the leadership election: a run-off when the party’s 160,000 members will choose the winner. They are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary. Mr Johnson got more than half the votes with 160. Mr Hunt just pipped Michael Gove, the environment secretary, with 77 votes to 75.
Boris Johnson’s ascent to the prime ministership now looks even more likely than it was a week ago. Mr Johnson’s biggest problem was always winning over his fellow Conservative MPs. He’s never been much of a team player: he has devoted more time to lining his own pockets (in one year he earned £540,000 from journalism and public speaking) than to campaigning for his colleagues. He’s also been a lacklustre and lazy performer at the dispatch box in parliament. But he is adored by the party members in the country who cherish his Bertie Wooster-with-a-thesaurus speeches and flamboyant style. They also agree with him on Brexit.
Mr Hunt is unlikely to be able to slow down 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 Mr Johnson, his predecessor: foreign office insiders say that he inherited a demoralised and disoriented department and quickly reinvigorated it. But Mr Hunt is a sensible man who is trying to win the support of a party that has gone slightly bonkers: fixated on Brexit, furious about the way Britain has been treated by Brussels, and given to chasing unicorns. The majority of party members say that they support a no-deal Brexit despite overwhelming evidence about the damage that that would do to the economy. Mr Hunt also bears the Conservative Party’s equivalent of the mark of Cain: he voted Remain in 2016. Thus, although he claims that he’s now determined to deliver Brexit, he provokes comparisons with Theresa May who, according to hard-core Brexiteers, failed to deliver Brexit not because of an intractable problem and a hung parliament, but because she didn’t “believe”.
Mr Johnson would have faced a much tougher fight against Michael Gove. Mr Gove is one of the party’s most accomplished debaters—quick on his feet, frequently funny and, unlike Mr Johnson, steeped in policy details. He also has an appetite to go for the jugular. Mr Gove might have done real damage to Mr Johnson. By contrast Mr Hunt is too emollient a figure—his critics would call him “bland”—to burst the Boris balloon. Once more, luck is with the front- runner.
Tory MPs are also acting out of self-preservation in their choice of Messrs Hunt and Johnson to finish off the contest. MPs knew that a contest between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove could easily have degenerated into the modern equivalent of the contest between Polynices and Eteocles who murdered each other in their determination to rule over Thebes (Mr Johnson, who read classics at Oxford, is fond of classical references). The two men were close friends at Oxford and beyond, with Mr Johnson playing the senior role and Mr Gove being something of a courtier. Mr Johnson chose Mr Gove to run his campaign for the premiership in 2016. But then Mr Gove turned against his friend and former mentor and announced that he didn’t think that he was fit to be prime minister. By choosing Mr Hunt MPs have avoided a blood-letting, and distanced the their party from one of the great psycho-dramas of recent years.
The party may have limited the potential damage of the race but it certainly hasn’t escaped Scott free. The two surviving candidates are both products of private schools and Oxford University, Mr Johnson Eton and Balliol, Mr Hunt Charterhouse and Magdalen. Conservatives eliminated 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 foreign office high flyer turned author turned academic who is brimming with original ideas (Rory Stewart). Mr Johnson refused to turn up to the first televised debate and the parliamentary lobby hustings. His team also reportedly used tactics worthy of the Oxford Union (of which he was once president) rather than parliament: “lending” votes to various runners up (by encouraging loyal supporters to vote for them) in order to eliminate candidates, such as Mr Stewart and Mr Gove, who might cause him the most trouble. “There have been lies and lies and lies and loads of pomposity” was one Tory MP’s summary of the race so far.
Whatever the truth of these rumours (and it’s impossible to know given the secrecy of the ballot box) 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 peace (and Mr Stewart needs to swallow his pride and rescind his promise that he won’t serve in a Johnson administration). Mr Stewart has demonstrated that a Conservative can still excite middle-of-the-road voters. He would also make a superb foreign secretary.
It is even more important, from the Conservative Party’s point of view, 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 is also gifted with the very strengths that Mr Johnson lacks: an ability to re-energise government departments with conservative ideas, a broad interest in public policy and an impressive command of detail. In an ideal world Mr Gove would make an excellent CEO to Mr Johnson’s chairman of the board. But then in an ideal world Polynices and Eteocles would not have slaughtered each other.