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Theresa May in Downing Street
Image: Reuters/H. McKay

Race to replace May gets underway

Jane Mcintosh
June 10, 2019

Ten candidates are vying for the leadership of Britain's oldest political party — and the keys to 10 Downing Street. Brexit brought down Theresa May and is expected to be the dominant debate among potential successors.


Conservative members of the UK Parliament saw the confirmed list of their colleagues who want the top party job on Monday evening.  The party's 1922 Committee of backbenchers announced the candidates who had made it through to the first vote on Thursday afternoon.

Ten candidates were challenging for the top post after former leader and current Prime Minister Theresa May sent in her letter of resignation on Friday.

Heading the pack are:

  • former Foreign Secretary and London Mayor Boris Johnson
  • current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
  • former Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom
  • current Environment Secretary Michael Gove

How does the process work?

Because of the high number of applicants, there will be several rounds of voting among the party's 313 lawmakers to narrow the field.

Two remaining candidates will then go forward to a runoff vote among the party membership, which is believed to number about 150,000, but there are no published and audited records to verify the figure.

Whittling down the numbers

Campaigning among the candidates on policies and promises has been mixed with revelations about their behavior, leading to doubts about whether they can garner support. 

Gove's challenge is in the balance after a new book revealed he had taken cocaine on several occasions when working as a journalist 20 years ago. 

In a 2007 GQ interview, Johnson admitted to trying cocaine and cannabis at university. 

Hunt said he had a "cannabis lassi" in India, Leadsom smoked cannabis at university. Dominic Raab admitted taking cannabis as a student; Rory Stewart smoked opium in Afghanistan; a friend of Matt Hancock's said he "tried cannabis a few times," while Esther McVey told the BBC she had "tried some pot." Sajid Javid, Mark Harper and Sam Gyimah have denied ever taking drugs.

Gyimah, however, did not last the pace, pulling out on Monday ahead of the first vote. The 42-year-old confirmed: "I have reached the conclusion that, having entered the race at such a late stage, there simply has not been enough time to build sufficient support and I have decided to step back."

May's downfall

Brexit was the cause of May's downfall after she failed to get the Withdrawal Bill through Parliament three times. 

Appealing to the hard-line Brexiteers in the Conservative Party membership, the candidates have all claimed that they can present a better Brexit than May. Several are threatening to take the UK out of the European Union at the end of October without an agreement. Johnson is saying he would refuse to pay the UK's agreed debts to the EU during its membership.

The final pitches

As the nominations were closing on Monday, the candidates made their last-ditch appeals to colleagues and party members. 

Johnson pledged income tax cuts for high earners in a print newspaper article, as his live appearances to state his case remain rare.

Archrival Gove, whose surprise leadership bid in 2016 effectively torpedoed Johnson's, said he would never afford such generosity to the rich and even mocked Johnson's aptitude for the role. "If I get through, which I am sure I will actually, to the final two against Mr. Johnson, this is what I will say to him: 'Mr. Johnson, whatever you do, don’t pull out, I know you have before, and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it, but the Conservative Party membership deserve a choice,'" he said.

Hunt launched his campaign with the support of Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt. He said he would be prepared to leave the EU without a deal but would never take action to provoke an election before Brexit has been delivered.

Raab said Johnson's tax plan suggested that Conservatives only care about the rich and he would prioritize low-income voters with tax cuts.

Hancock said he was a "fresh start" candidate who could "move fast and make things happen."

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who plays no role in the Conservative Party or its election, said: "What a horror show the Tory leadership election is. Tax cuts for the richest, attacks on abortion rights, hypocrisy on drugs, continued Brexit delusion."

What happens next

Once Conservative MPs hold their votes this week, the final two candidates will present themselves to the party membership in a series of meetings over the coming weeks. Party members will then send in their votes. 

A decision is expected by the end of July, just in time for the new leader to make a statement in the House of Commons before the assembly closes for a summer break in August. It will be back in session at the start of September. 

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