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Articles

The Fight to Lead the U.K. Narrows to 2: Boris Johnson vs. Jeremy Hunt

ImageJeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary and a candidate to lead the Conservative Party and become the next prime minister, in London last week.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary and a candidate to lead the Conservative Party and become the next prime minister, in London last week.CreditCreditToby Melville/Reuters

    LONDON — After more than a week of campaigning, intriguing and infighting among Conservative Party lawmakers, Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, won the right on Thursday to take on his more famous and charismatic predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the final phase of the race to become the next prime minister.

    Mr. Hunt was the second choice of Tory lawmakers, well behind Mr. Johnson, and now the two men will compete for the votes of around 160,000 members of the party who will next month select a successor to Prime Minister Theresa May. Mr. Johnson won 160 votes, and Mr. Hunt 77.

    Mr. Johnson, whose optimistic, bombastic and entertaining speeches at party conferences have made him a favorite of activists, is supremely well placed to win the vote. The party members are disproportionately older, whiter and more male than the general population and appear to favor Brexit at any cost, something that Mr. Johnson has championed since a 2016 referendum that he helped win.

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    Boris Johnson is the front-runner to be the next Conservative Party leader and prime minister. The former foreign secretary is a hard-line supporter of Brexit.CreditCreditLeon Neal/Getty Images

    According to the rumor mill, the mild-mannered Mr. Hunt was the candidate that Mr. Johnson most wanted to face in the runoff, and all day Thursday there was speculation in Parliament of tactical voting by his supporters to eliminate Michael Gove, the environment secretary.

    Mr. Gove was Mr. Johnson’s nemesis in 2016, the last time the Conservative leadership was contested, and in the first of two votes held on Thursday, Mr. Hunt had fallen slightly behind Mr. Gove.

    Yet, it was Mr. Gove who sank Mr. Johnson’s push for the top job in 2016, and some lawmakers feared the consequences for the party of a vicious fight between the old rivals. By early evening it was announced that Mr. Hunt had pushed Mr. Gove into third place in the final ballot, with 75 votes, eliminating him from the contest.

    Though Mr. Hunt opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum campaign, he now supports it. But lingering suspicions about the depth of his commitment, coupled with his decided lack of charisma on the campaign trail, have led opponents to call him “Theresa May in trousers.”

    Mr. Hunt’s public utterances have not always been as vanilla as his critics claim. He once likened the European Union to the Soviet Union, and caused some astonishment when he accidentally described his Chinese wife as Japanese.

    But foreign policy analysts say that he performed significantly better in his post than Mr. Johnson, who never looked comfortable at the Foreign Office and whose careless language was widely blamed for worsening the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who is being held in prison in Iran.

    Mr. Hunt will now have the opportunity to make his pitch for the top job and subject Mr. Johnson to some scrutiny in a series of debates for party members around the country.

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    The front-runner to lead the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, left, and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt during a BBC television leadership debate in London on Tuesday.CreditJeff Overs/BBC

    Under Britain’s parliamentary system the prime minister is not directly elected but is the leader of the party with a majority in Parliament. That means that if the dominant party’s leadership changes, so does the prime minister.

    Mr. Hunt’s father was a senior Royal Navy officer and, like Mr. Johnson, he studied at Oxford University and attended an expensive private school.

    A businessman before he went into politics, Mr. Hunt argues that he is well equipped to negotiate a new Brexit agreement with the European Union. And he showed his soothing manner and political skills by surviving a long stint as the health secretary — a difficult job for a Conservative politician, particularly at a time of squeezed public spending.

    One big question is how tough Mr. Hunt will be on Mr. Johnson and whether he will raise doubts about his honesty, reliability and competence for the position of prime minister. Although Mr. Hunt criticized Mr. Johnson for ducking out of one TV debate, it was another candidate, Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, who was the most vocal in attacking the front-runner.

    The other central focus of the next few weeks will be what Mr. Johnson says about Brexit, given that he is very likely to emerge as the next prime minister.

    Although hard-line Brexit supporters believe that he has promised them that Britain will leave the European Union, with or without an agreement on the next deadline of Oct. 31, Mr. Johnson has been less explicit in public.

    During a BBC debate on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson described that timeline as “eminently feasible,” a phrasing that left significant room for maneuver.

    Senior Tories hope that the next phase of the contest will not expose too many internal divisions. The prospect of a race between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gove, reviving one of the most treacherous and poisonous rivalries of recent British political history, had sent shudders through the Tory ranks.

    The two were friends as students at Oxford and both were journalists before being elected to Parliament. Both also campaigned for Brexit during the 2016 referendum and, when David Cameron resigned as prime minister in its aftermath, Mr. Gove supported Mr. Johnson as the successor.

    Mr. Gove then changed his mind, ran himself and justified his betrayal by arguing that Mr. Johnson was not equipped to be prime minister. That wrecked Mr. Johnson’s first attempt to win the Conservative Party leadership and opened the way for Mrs. May to seize the crown instead.

    Three years later, and restored to the cabinet, Mr. Gove also posed a threat to Mr. Johnson because he was a supporter of Brexit before him. He therefore had good credentials with Conservative Party members.

    But Mr. Gove’s campaign got off to a disastrous start when he admitted having used cocaine two decades ago, an acknowledgment that opened him to the charge of hypocrisy over his later actions as education and justice secretary.

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