Upstart Rory Stewart takes on UK Tory favorite Boris Johnson
London – The populist and the pragmatist: of the 10 candidates running to become Britain’s next prime minister, they’re the ones generating most of the buzz.
The populist is former Boris Johnson, who ran London as mayor for eight years until 2016 and then became Britain’s foreign secretary until his resignation last summer. He’s a confident if erratic Conservative Party star with a simple message: I’ll sort out Brexit.
“We can get Brexit done,” Johnson said at his campaign launch Wednesday, promising that Britain will leave the European Union by the end of October. “Delay means defeat.”
The pragmatist is International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, the self-styled “anti-Boris,” who accuses Johnson of selling the public “fairy tales” about a clean and simple exit from the EU.
All indications suggest that the Conservative Party prefers Johnson’s simpler message. Johnson, who helped lead the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, is the strong favorite on betting markets to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who quit as party leader last week after failing to win Parliament’s backing for her divorce deal with the EU.
Other contenders include Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
On Thursday the 313 Conservative lawmakers will start the process of narrowing the field down to two, who will be put to a vote of about 160,000 party members across the country. The winner will become Conservative leader and prime minister, without the need for a national election.
The new leader’s main challenge will be the one that defeated May: delivering Brexit. Britain’s EU departure was originally due to take place on March 29, but has been delayed to Oct. 31 because of the political deadlock in London.
Never one to hold back, Johnson warned Wednesday that if politicians delayed Britain’s EU departure again, “we will reap the whirlwind and we will face mortal retribution from the electorate.”
Johnson said he was prepared to leave the EU without a deal if necessary, but insisted it was an unlikely outcome. He was vague about how it could be avoided, given that the 27 other EU leaders have said they will not renegotiate the deal they struck with May.
“I think there will be a symmetrical enthusiasm on the other side of the Channel about getting this thing done and moving forward,” Johnson said airily.
Many businesses and economists say quitting the EU with no agreement on departure terms and future relations would cause economic turmoil and plunge Britain into recession.
Stewart, who voted to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum, favors a soft Brexit that retains close economic and political ties with the bloc. He says a no-deal departure is “not a destination, it’s a failure to reach a destination.”
For all their differences, Johnson and Stewart have strikingly similar backgrounds. Both attended Eton, Britain’s most elite boarding school, and Balliol, one of the poshest colleges of Oxford University.
Johnson, 54, worked as a journalist before starting a political career that has zig-zagged between high office and spells on the sidelines. In 2016 he launched and then abandoned a bid to become prime minister in a contest won by May. She made him foreign secretary, but he quit in July 2018 in opposition to her Brexit blueprint.
Johnson’s easy jokes and Latin quips have made him one of the party’s best-known politicians, but his verbal blunders and glibly offensive statements have led some to question his fitness for high office. He has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, accused people in the city of Liverpool of “wallowing” in victimhood and last year compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
Johnson was unrepentant on Wednesday, saying people wanted plain-speaking politicians.
“Of course I am sorry for the offense that I have caused, but I will continue to speak as directly as I can,” he said.
Stewart’s eclectic CV includes a stint as tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a spell as a British diplomat, a solo walk across Afghanistan and time as a deputy governor in southern Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. He was elected to Parliament in 2010 and was appointed international development secretary last month.
The 46-year-old lacks Johnson’s public profile, but has run a savvy campaign, travelling the country talking to voters and posting endearingly amateurish videos under the hashtag #Rorywalks.
Johnson’s campaign launch took place in a grand 200-year-old edifice overlooking St. James’s Park; Stewart’s was in a circus tent.
Johnson has the backing of dozens of Conservative lawmakers, compared to just a handful for Stewart, and a much better chance of winning the race. Both Conservative lawmakers and party members are much more strongly pro-Brexit than the population as a whole.
Stewart acknowledged that his appeal for compromise “is literally the most unpopular thing to say in British politics at the moment.”
“Everybody claims to be speaking for the people and everybody claims to be right, and there is no compromise,” he said.
But Stewart’s message has struck a chord with a chunk of the British electorate tired of rancor and division over Brexit.
“It’s just nice to hear someone who is kind and decent,” said Sarah Riley-Smith, who came to hear Stewart speak in London this week. “He’s the only hope – not that I think he’s going to win.”