Political drama continued to roil the U.K. this week after the British vote to exit the European Union, also known as Brexit. Boris Johnson, the Brexit champion and former London mayor who was widely tipped to be the next British prime minister, bowed out of the running on Thursday morning.
His shock announcement leaves the race to replace U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who stepped down last week after losing the referendum vote, wide open.
In the U.K., the prime minister is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. That means members of the Conservative party will select their new legislative leader and the next British national leader at the same time, at least until a new general election is called.
Conservative members of Parliament will first vote on the candidates until there are two top contenders, and then the choice between them goes to a vote among the wider party membership. The process begins next week, and the result is expected in early September.
On the other side of the aisle in Parliament, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party is facing upheaval of its own.
Labour MPs are battling to oust leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, claiming he didn’t fight hard enough to keep Britain in the EU and cannot win the next general election. Despite a vote of no-confidence and the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet earlier this week, Corbyn has refused to step down.
Corbyn was met with more uproar on Thursday, when an event he called to tackle anti-Semitism in the party descended into chaos when a Jewish Labour MP stormed out and Corbyn was accused of comparing Israel to the Islamic State militant group. As infighting in the Labour party grows, several prospective Labour party leadership candidates are waiting in the wings.
Thanks to all the tumult, Britain’s top political leadership could look very different, very soon. Here’s a run-down of who’s in the running for leadership of both parties.
British Justice Secretary Michael Gove made a surprise announcement that he would run for leader early Thursday, adding a further twist to the Shakespearean drama gripping the Conservative leadership.
Gove had positioned himself as the right-hand man to Johnson during the Brexit campaign and the brains behind the operation. He was widely expected to back Johnson for leader, as Johnson has been eyeing the top job for years. Gove always insisted he didn’t want the job.
On Wednesday, an email leaked from Gove’s wife, newspaper columnist Sarah Vine, in which she urged him to make sure Johnson would promise him a job in his government, and warned that without Gove’s support, Johnson wouldn’t win the backing of the Conservative party or British press.
Early Thursday, Gove launched his own campaign. “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” he said. A few hours later, Johnson announced he would not run. Some of Johnson’s aides accused Gove of plotting in the wings to backstab the ex-mayor all along.
Gove, a 48-year-old former journalist who grew up in Scotland, is a polarizing figure. He was fired from his former role as education secretary after he alienated teachers with his radical education reforms. He earned respect for pro-Leave voters for articulating the position more reasonably (and less xenophobically) than most, but the opprobrium of the Remain supporters for linking experts to Nazism and racist scaremongering about Turkish membership in the EU.
Gove touts himself as a leader who can bring change and best meet the demands of the majority who voted for Brexit, yet his leadership bid is likely to be controversial.
@dutaut @FlyMyGeekFlag @A_Weatherall @nastyoldmrpike @Samfr Had to be done… The Govefather. #GoveNicknames pic.twitter.com/X0mRzWBCWc
— Beth Bennett (@bethben92) June 5, 2016
British Home Secretary Theresa May also launched her leadership campaign on Thursday, and quickly became the favorite to lead the party.
May, who was the first female chairman of the Conservative party, backed the campaign to remain in the EU, but largely stayed out the fray as Cameron, Johnson and their allies traded barbs and threats.
She has cast herself as the candidate to unify the country, and an alternative to the showy politics of some of her colleagues. “I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me,” she said at her campaign launch Thursday.
May, 59, is one of the Britain’s longest-serving home secretaries, and earned a reputation as a tough leader. But she’s also been criticized from the right for not further reducing migration levels. She clashed with Gove in 2014, after he accused her department of not doing enough to tackle radical extremism.
May, who previously worked at the Bank of England, promised to fully implement Brexit as leader.
The 43-year-old work and pensions secretary is a rising star of the Conservative party, and an interesting underdog in the leadership contest.
For some Conservatives, he is a refreshing contrast to the socioeconomic elites who currently dominate the leadership of the party. He was raised by a single mother who depended on public housing and social welfare, and as a politician has stressed the importance of education in overcoming poverty.
Crabb was born in Scotland and raised in Wales, and his first role in the British government was the secretary of state for Wales. He has pledged to unite the U.K. after the referendum sparked renewed calls for independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
While he backed the Remain campaign, he vowed to implement Brexit and secure voters’ demands for greater control over migration.
The 53-year-old former banker hasn’t held as senior positions as her fellow contenders — she is currently a junior minister in the Energy and Climate Change Department — but she argues that this is exactly why she should be the next prime minister. “I have a lot of real-world experience,” she told the BBC.
Leadsom supported the Brexit campaign, and won praise for her calm articulation of the position in TV debates. When announcing her campaign, she argued that only a Brexiteer could properly lead the country through its departure from the EU.
Delighted to say I'm running for the @Conservatives Leadership.
Let's make the most of the Brexit opportunities!#FreshStart
— Andrea Leadsom MP (@andrealeadsom) June 30, 2016
The former defense secretary is the only candidate so far who has run for Conservative leader before — he came third in the 2005 leadership race that Cameron won.
A 54-year-old former doctor and civilian Army medical officer, he is regarded as an heir to Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in the party and has the support of the right-wing Conservatives. Some of his positions have provoked controversy, including calling for The Guardian newspaper to be prosecuted for publishing material leaked by Edward Snowden.
A long-time Eurosceptic, he backed Brexit and has advocated for strict immigration controls.
The former shadow business minister, who resigned earlier this week along with many of her colleagues, is preparing to mount a leadership challenge to Corbyn, the BBC reported. To force a leadership contest, she needs the support of 51 MPs. Corbyn has vowed that if Eagle mounts a challenge, he’ll put himself forward again.
Eagle, 55, has been an MP since 1992 and has built up a strong network in the party. She was a junior minister in former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government, before taking on treasury and business roles in the Labour opposition.
Eagle came out in 1997 and has been named one of the most influential gay people in Britain. Her twin sister, Maria, is also a senior Labour MP, and they were the first set of twins in the U.K. Parliament.
She is regarded as being on the center-left of the party, and some see her as a potentially unifying figure after Corbyn’s divisive leadership.
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has asked Corbyn to consider his position as leader, and warned that the leadership crisis is tearing the party apart.
“My party is in peril, we are facing an existential crisis and I just don’t want us to be in this position because I think there are millions of people in this country who need a left-leaning government,” told BBC News.
The 49-year-old former trade union official was an ally of Gordon Brown in his leadership struggle with Tony Blair. He won praise and recognition for his interrogation of Rupert and James Murdoch during the 2011 phone hacking scandal that shook the British press.
While Watson has ruled himself out of running to replace Corbyn, the twists and turns of British politics over the past week suggest that anything is possible.
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