Election of Britain’s Next Prime Minister Feels a Little Ridiculous

Britain has to suspend its potentially greatest crisis in half a century while two unpopular candidates face off.

London mayor Boris Johnson waves at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England, October 9, 2012
London mayor Boris Johnson waves at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England, October 9, 2012 (Andrew Parsons)

The contest to succeed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister of the UK is about halfway through. A field of more than two dozen candidates has been whittled down to two by parliamentarians. The final contenders are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

The entire thing has an air of ridicule to it. Many in the country have watched the televised debates between the candidates setting out their policies on not just Brexit but controversial domestic issues, such as social care and high-speed rail. But out of millions, only 150 to 160,000 party members have a vote.

On top of this, to spend the better half of two months choosing a new leader, who will be the new prime minister by default, when the country faces perhaps its greatest crisis in half a century seems rather like rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship — futile and even a little insulting to those who suspect more could have been done with the six-month Brexit extension granted by the EU in April.

Union at risk

While Johnson, a former mayor of London who most recently served as foreign secretary, is by far the more popular candidate among Conservative Party voters, there are some who are put off by his tendency, both in his political career and before that as a journalist, to choose what is best for him over what is best for the country.

The rise of modern British Euroskepticism can be traced to the journalism (and lies) Johnson edited and published as EU correspondent for The Telegraph between 1989 and 1994.

On Brexit, Johnson insists it must happen no matter the cost, deal or no deal. But his Conservative and Unionist Party, to give its full name, should also be committed to the union of the four nations that make up the UK. A no-deal Brexit — suddenly ending everything from free trade to security cooperation — could very well break it up. Northern Ireland is desperate to avoid the return of a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south. The vast majority of Scots want to remain on good terms with the EU.

It is for this reason that the Scottish Conservatives back Johnson’s rival, Hunt. He has made clear that the cost of Brexit should not, and ought not to be, the dissolution of the United Kingdom.

Suspicions

But while Johnson may not be trusted based on what he says, Hunt evokes suspicions in other areas.

One of the few things that unites the British people is their support for the government-run National Health Service, which Hunt at one point proposed to privatize. As health secretary from 2012 to 2018, he witnesses the first doctors’ strike in forty years. Waiting lists doubled under his watch. The situation was so dire that the International Red Cross called it a “humanitarian crisis”.

So it’s no wonder that few British voters care for the choice presented to them. It may well be, as I wrote in my previous piece, that the next Conservative prime minister turns out to be the last.

We’ll know more in a month, when the result is due to be announced.