Boris Johnson, leader of the 2016 Brexit campaign, will face former Remainer Jeremy Hunt in a showdown to become Britain’s next prime minister after environment secretary Michael Gove was ousted from the contest by Conservative MPs.
The outcome sets up a four-week battle between the former mayor of London and foreign secretary Mr Hunt as they vie for the support of around 160,000 Conservative members to succeed Theresa May in Downing Street.
Mr Johnson’s team were relieved that their candidate would be facing the mild-mannered foreign secretary rather than the spiky Mr Gove, a formidable debater who also campaigned for Leave in 2016.
In the last round of voting by 313 Tory MPs on Thursday to choose the final two candidates, Mr Johnson won 160 votes. Mr Hunt trailed him on 77, just two ahead of Mr Gove. Throughout the day there was speculation that some of Mr Johnson’s backers would “lend” their backing to Mr Hunt to block Mr Gove, who torpedoed Mr Johnson’s campaign in the previous leadership contest after the 2016 EU referendum that was won by Mrs May.
Mr Johnson’s team insisted they had not exacted “revenge” on Mr Gove by covertly persuading Tory MPs to back Mr Hunt. The foreign secretary’s team said there was “no evidence” of tactical voting.
Mr Hunt’s team had warned that if Mr Gove made the last two there would be a repeat of the “psychodrama” of 2016.
The fight now moves from Westminster to Conservative associations across the country, where Mr Hunt will try to halt Mr Johnson’s apparently unstoppable march to Number 10 over a four-week campaign, including more than a dozen hustings.
Mr Hunt was made 7-1 outsider by bookmakers William Hill, with most Tory MPs believing that only a major scandal or a calamitous campaign can prevent Mr Johnson becoming prime minister in the week starting July 22.
“I’m the underdog, but in politics surprises happen, as they did today,” Mr Hunt said. “I do not doubt the responsibility on my shoulders: to show my party how we deliver Brexit and not an election, but also a turbocharged economy and a country that walks tall in the world.”
Mr Johnson, foreign secretary until he resigned from Mrs May’s cabinet last year in protest at her failed Brexit plan, has insisted that Britain must leave the EU on the rescheduled date of October 31 with or without a deal, while Mr Hunt has indicated that he could take a more flexible approach.
Mr Gove had made it through to the final three despite revelations two weeks ago that he had taken cocaine in the past, but his team feared that the Johnson camp would oversee tactical voting for Mr Hunt to block him at the final hurdle.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, was knocked out of the race earlier on Thursday and is now seen as a leading contender to be the next chancellor. His allies expect him to declare his backing for Mr Johnson.
Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt will take part in 16 membership hustings, with the first event in Birmingham on Saturday. The final event will be a head-to-head debate in front of Tory activists in London on July 17.
Meanwhile, postal voting forms will be sent out between July 6 and 8. Only Conservative members who are over 16 and have been in the party for more than three months will be allowed to vote.
Mr Johnson’s allies are likely to point to Mr Hunt’s varied positions on Brexit: in late June 2016, soon after the Brexit result, he called for a second referendum on any deal.
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