LONDON — The battle to become Britain’s next prime minister has descended into a blood-spattered Shakespearean epic within 24 hours of the nominations being opened. Betrayal, intrigue, and backstabbing gripped the Conservative Party at the end of the most dramatic week in the history of British politics.
Boris Johnson, who was the favorite to win the contest earlier Thursday, was forced to pull out of the race when his own campaign manager betrayed him in spectacular fashion.
Johnson is widely thought to have campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in last week’s referendum as part of a cunning plot to seize the leadership of the Conservative Party from his old school friend David Cameron.
That plan was dramatically accelerated when Britain unexpectedly put its faith in Johnson’s vision for Brexit and followed him off the economic cliff.
Cameron announced that he would quit as financial markets tumbled all around him, and suddenly Johnson was the one left to deal with Britain’s biggest political emergency since World War II.
At times of great crisis, true leaders step forward. Johnson hesitated, then prevaricated, and then angered his Conservative colleagues with a mealy mouthed newspaper column that appeared to show he was wavering about fully pulling Britain out of the European Union.
Michael Gove, who ran the Leave campaign with Johnson, was always more of a true believer. In a statement that shocked Westminster on Thursday, he announced he would quit his role as Johnson’s campaign manager and put himself forward for the party leadership.
“I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” Gove said.
Within minutes of the statement, members of Parliament who had pledged their support to Johnson were abandoning him in favor of Gove. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, described Gove on Thursday as “Lord Macbeth.”
Frantic phone calls from what was left of Johnson’s team confirmed what they feared most: Their supporters were pulling away in droves. Johnson’s leadership announcement was initially delayed. Eventually he took to the dais and began to fulminate in trademark Boris style. He said this was “a time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune.”
At this point only the most well-tuned literary ears would have noticed that Johnson was paraphrasing the words of Brutus from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who says: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
For those of us who missed Johnson’s scholarly reference to the fatal treachery of Brutus, he finally turned to the question of who should be Britain’s next prime minister.
“I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.
Johnson’s surrender after being outmaneuvered by his No. 2 has left senior figures in the Conservative Party enraged by his cowardice.
“I have never seen anything like it. He’s ripped the Tory party apart, he has created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime in my life. He’s knocked billions off the value of the savings of the British people. He’s like a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns, and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it,” said Lord Heseltine, the former Conservative deputy prime minister and Thatcher-era Cabinet member.
“I have never seen so contemptible and irresponsible a situation. He must live with the shame of what he has done.”
This unprecedented public squabble was a boost for Theresa May, the imperious home secretary who is now in the pole position to become Britain’s second female prime minister.
While the Leave campaigners were arguing over whether to support Gove, Johnson, or another leading Brexit figure who is standing for the leadership, Andrea Leadsom, May was holding a formidable press conference.
“Some need to be told that [politics] isn’t a game. It’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives,” May said. “If ever there was a time for a prime minister who is ready and able to do the job from Day 1, this is it.”
She announced support for her leader’s Remain position at the start of the referendum campaign, but she cleverly avoided getting involved in the rough-and-tumble campaigning that threatened to tear the Conservative Party apart.
George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer and another early favorite to be next Tory leader, had his prime-ministerial ambitions extinguished by running an aggressive and ultimately failed bid for Britain to stay in Europe. May made no such mistake.
Polling of the Conservative Party’s roughly 125,000 members suggested she was still trusted by the Leave voters.
Respected by both sides within the Conservatives, she was able to claim Thursday that she was the only figure who could bring a bitterly divided country back together. “We need leadership that can unite our party and our country,” she said. “I’m Theresa May, and I’m the best person to be prime minister.”
Once Johnson had pulled out, the bookmakers made May the clear favorite.
Anna Soubry, the business minister, apologized to the country for the state of British politics and pledged her support to May. “We’ve had enough of these boys messing about,” she said.
It is notoriously difficult to predict Conservative leadership contests, however, even in relatively stable times. The early favorite rarely prevails; there was no Prime Minister Michael Portillo; outspoken civil-liberties campaigner David Davis was expected to assume the role in 2005 until an upstart named David Cameron staged a slick campaign.
The 330 Conservative MPs will be responsible for whittling the candidates down—one by one in a series of staggered votes—until the last two standing are entered onto the ballot paper that is sent to the party members. Those members will choose between the two before the result is announced Sept. 9.