First, the justice minister Michael Gove, formerly cast as the trusty Tonto to Boris Johnson’s Lone Ranger in the Leave campaign, expresses dismay at Boris’s chaotic demeanor since the vote to get out of Europe and declares he’s going to stand for Conservative Party leader (i.e., next prime minister) himself.
The two men are both ex-journalists, but they occupy very different strata of the British class hierarchy. The adopted son of a Scottish fishmonger, the state-educated Gove lacks the divine-right/Old Etonian/toff high gloss that Johnson shares with David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, and many of their cabinet colleagues.
He’s a clever man, but also a combative and clumsy one. As Education Secretary he fell out with the teachers; as Justice Secretary he alienated the Criminal Bar Association. British television and radio were swamped on Wednesday with clips of him saying over and over that he didn’t want to be prime minister, that he didn’t think he had the necessary skills. But that was yesterday.
Gove’s wife is loud-mouthed columnist Sarah Vine who writes, often about their marriage, for the right-wing Daily Mail. Thanks to an email Vine accidentally sent to the wrong address, ordering her boffin husband “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best,” Brits have been savoring her unmasking as the ‘Leave’ campaign’s Lady Macbeth.
Then today we get the Sweeps Week kicker. After pushing the UK off the Brexit cliff, Boris Johnson announces his shock decision not to run after all for the prize he has sought since toddlerhood: to be leader of the Tories and thus the next prime minister.
“Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.
Boris-haters, however, should not gloat too soon. To close students of the thatched comedian’s successful pattern of faux-improvisational career moves, his announcement is not that much of a surprise. Negotiating the UK exit from Europe will require the intellectual rigor of an Alexander Hamilton. Boris is more the impulsive Aaron Burr type. (Burr, you will recall, ended up trying to start his own country in the western wilderness after Jefferson outmaneuvered him for the presidency.)
Boris assumed everyone would understand that leading the Brexit campaign was just a bit of swashbuckling but harmless gestural politics. (Gove apparently thought so, too; until a triumphant Sarah Vine roused him from his slumbers the morning after the vote, he had penciled in a take-your-daughter-to-work day.)
For Boris, a fast exit from the mess he’s created may turn out to be an entirely habitual piece of brand-preserving cunning.
In an era of Snapchat politics, when memories disappear in a news cycle or two, Boris can spend the summer doing what he’d rather do anyway: writing a bestseller in some pleasant rented villa in Tuscany or the Dordogne (aka Europe), after which he can stand again for the Tory leadership at the next available opportunity.
He leaves the mess for his likely successor—Home Secretary Theresa May, 59, currently at 36 percent in the polls against Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb at 7% and George Osborne at 4%—to clean up. Because isn’t that what women always do?
The good news for May is that the UK, after being shipwrecked by Boris’s charm, might now be ready for a candidate who, Hillary-like, has always been tagged with the “unrelatable” label. May has latterly been outshone in the media by the new women rising in UK politics—women like Ruth Davidson, the kick-boxing lesbian leader of the Scottish Conservative Party who crushed Boris in a pre-Brexit debate, and the staunchly human Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader who may be the biggest natural political talent since Tony Blair.
But Theresa May has grit. Her guarded demeanor, like Hillary’s, is a generational female defense against sexist obstacles.
The daughter of a vicar and the granddaughter of an Army sergeant major, she has a resumé that sounds like the libretto for HMS Pinafore.
But her cautiously flamboyant designer shoes and well-chosen couture send a different message. She’s cool, tough, strategic. “I’m not a showy politician” she said today during her campaign launch in London, in deft positioning against Boris. And she cited, among other things, her experience in negotiating the deportation of the radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, after a protracted legal battle, and standing up to the US over its demand to extradite hacker Gary McKinnon.
May’s protective façade doesn’t win her fans but it does win her respect. She has been fearless in dressing down police malfeasance, and hunting down pedophiles. Inheriting the Brexit debacle from feckless Boris might suddenly make the responsible, dogged, work-obsessed near-sexagenarian a hugely reassuring figure—the Angela Merkel of Downing Street.
May won a significant endorsement today when today’s Mail came out on its front page in favor of her candidacy. What will Sarah Vine have to say about THAT in her feisty column? Indeed, in the current atmosphere of denunciation and decapitation, will Mrs. Gove even HAVE a column next week?
If Brexit is a symptom of the same pseudo-populist fever as the Trump ascendancy, might there be the happy possibility that Donald, like Boris, will bail before the mob finally (to borrow a Trumpism) figures out what the hell’s going on? Or, failing that, that the pretender with the interesting hair will be usurped by a fully qualified woman whose competence and experience, err, trump her failure to be the kind of guy you want to have a beer with?