When Theresa May announced her resignation on May 24, the contest to replace her, which had been quietly going on for months, burst into the open. This isn’t a national election—given how the party is polling these days, no candidate would want that. It’s a contest to become leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister.
May will officially step down as leader of the conservatives on Friday but will stay on as prime minister until her replacement is chosen. There are 11 declared candidates, and a few more may still jump in. They have until Monday to decide whether to run. Conservative members of parliament will then whittle these down in a series of votes until there are just two. Then, the party membership will choose between those two. The party wants to have the whole thing wrapped up by late July, when Parliament will go on recess. Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking down to Oct. 31, the current deadline on which Britain is due to exit the EU. (It’s now been extended twice.)
The candidates have a wide variety of proposals on Brexit, ranging from asking for an extension to calling a new referendum to just saying, To hell with it, and leaving the EU without a deal. And there are still some non-Brexit political issues to consider as well. Like a fun house–mirror version of the U.S. Democratic primary, the field is a diverse group with some strong personalities as well as a lot of indistinguishable white guys.
Here’s a look at the currently declared contenders, grouped by their degree of Brexitiness. Odds are from the betting house Ladbrokes as of Wednesday.
Most recent job: foreign minister
Trump on the Thames? The voluble, mop-topped journalist–turned–London mayor–turned–foreign minister, who got an endorsement from Donald Trump this week, is currently the front-runner, according to most pundits and betting markets. He says he will try to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the EU before Oct. 31 but will pull Britain out of the EU on that date, with a deal or without one. As a leading campaigner for Leave during the original Brexit referendum who quit May’s Cabinet over disagreements about her withdrawal agreement, he is considered an arch Brexiteer, though his views on other social and economic issues are a bit more moderate than others in that camp. The case for Boris is that the party needs its own brash populist leader to push back against the Nigel Farages and Jeremy Corbyns of the world. The case against him is that he’s a rank opportunist, willing to do or say anything to gain power, regardless of the consequences for the country. Johnson is extremely popular with the party rank-and-file, so he will almost certainly win if he makes it to the final two. Unfortunately for him, many of his colleagues hate him.
Most recent job: leader of the House of Commons
Leadsom was the runner-up to Theresa May in 2016, the latest time the Tories had a leadership contest—she stumbled after making a controversial remark that having children gave her more of a stake in the country’s future than the childless May—and has thrown her hat into the ring again. The former investment banker has had a number of Cabinet positions in David Cameron’s and May’s governments. She stuck it out with May longer than most of the other Brexiteers but quit as leader of the House of Commons on May 22, just two days before May announced her own resignation. Leadsom might be the hardest Brexiteer of them all. She has declared May’s withdrawal agreement dead and isn’t even interested in renegotiating it. She instead favors a “managed no-deal” scenario in which Britain would seek a series of side agreements on key issues with Europe after leaving. The EU has said it’s not interested in making such deals, but Leadsom is still probably more realistic than anyone promising they can renegotiate everything by Oct. 31.
Most recent job: Brexit secretary
Raab, who was theoretically overseeing May’s negotiations with the EU, quit in protest after May released her withdrawal agreement in November. (He confusingly later voted for it as an MP.) His current line on Brexit is similar to Johnson’s—he will try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement but is prepared to leave without a deal if he can’t. He has gone further, however, by suggesting he would overrule Parliament to make a no-deal Brexit happen. Raab’s right-wing views—he favors cutting corporate tax rates and is open to privatizing some state-run schools—likely make him less palatable to Tory moderates than Johnson. He has created controversy in the past by saying food bank users are probably not “languishing in poverty” and has described feminists as “obnoxious bigots.”
Most recent job: secretary of state for work and pensions
The pro-Leave McVey quit May’s Cabinet at the same time as Raab and has seemingly angled for leadership since then, launching a Blue Collar Conservativism campaign group aimed at winning back working-class voters, complete with a pub tour. Her candidacy has been a little rough so far, though. She’s been mocked for suggesting there could be an “invisible border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. (This was a clumsy way of describing the vague “technological fixes” for the Irish border problem that are part of a lot of candidates Brexit plans.) She’s also faced backlash for defending the rights of parents to pull their kids out of classes that discuss LGBTQ relationships.
Current job: environment secretary
With the party deeply split over Brexit, Gove might end up being the ultimate compromise candidate. As justice secretary and a close ally of then–Prime Minister David Cameron, Gove was one of the most prominent Leave advocates along with Johnson ahead of the original referendum. But he quickly adopted a “softer” stance than most of his counterparts, and he stuck with May while nearly all the other prominent Brexiteers quit her Cabinet. Now, he reportedly says he’d be prepared to delay Brexit until 2020 in order to avoid a “no deal” and has pledged to allow EU citizens who lived in the U.K. before the referendum to apply for U.K. citizenship free of charge. For what it’s worth, Trump reportedly asked to meet with him, along with Johnson.
Current job: foreign secretary
Of the candidates who were Remainers during the referendum—he was health secretary at the time—Hunt probably has the best chance of becoming prime minister. He now supports leaving the EU and says he will assemble a new negotiating team—including hard-line Brexiteers and leaders from Northern Ireland and Scotland—to get a better deal than May’s. He has said that backing a no-deal Brexit would be “political suicide” for his party but also that he would back it “with a heavy heart” if necessary. As foreign minister, he has been actively involved in talks to reach a cease-fire in Yemen but has faced criticism for defending British arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Current job: home secretary
Javid was an extremely lukewarm Remainer during the referendum but is now thought of as a Brexiteer. He’s in the leave-on-Oct.-31-no-matter-what camp and advocates preparing for a no-deal. Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants who would be the U.K.’s first nonwhite prime minister, was considered a top-tier candidate early on, but his star has faded. He has recently defended the decision to strip the citizenship of a teenager who traveled to Syria to marry an ISIS fighter. In response to an increase in knife crime, he has called for more of a public health approach but has also backed giving police more stop-and-frisk powers. Apparently home secretary isn’t a job you take in the hopes of avoiding controversy.
Current job: health secretary
Matt Hancock, who is a different person than Mark Harper, wants to get the U.K. out of the EU by Oct. 31 but is against a no-deal Brexit. He has a somewhat more detailed plan than his competitors, involving a comprehensive free-trade deal with Europe and forming an “Irish border council” to help resolve the status of the border. He’s been praised by the Guardian for having “the seemingly basic virtues of being apparently competent and broadly similar to a normal human being.” Good job, Matt.
Most recent job: minister for disabled people
Mark Harper, who is definitely not Matt Hancock, was not in the Cabinet during the time Brexit was negotiated. He stepped down as immigration minister in 2014 when it turned out his house cleaner did not have a valid visa, then served as disabilities minister for less than a year. He says this is an advantage, since, “I don’t think we should take the people who were responsible for where we got to now and assume they’ve got the solutions for how we move forward.” The former accountant backed Remain in 2016 and hasn’t ruled out no-deal but says he will ask for a “short, focused extension” past Oct. 31, calling proposals to negotiate a new deal before then unrealistic. They are unrealistic, but it seems like no one really wants to hear that right now.
Not very Brexity
Current job: international development secretary
The former British foreign officer (and Slate contributor) is best known for his bestselling books describing his travels in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was given his first Cabinet role in May and almost immediately began campaigning for prime minister. He was a Remainer in 2016 who then became an enthusiastic public advocate (sometimes too enthusiastic) for May’s withdrawal agreement. He opposes a no-deal Brexit and has said he wouldn’t work under Johnson because of the latter’s stance on the issue. The young, eccentric Stewart has garnered some excitement with his social media–heavy campaign but is still considered a long shot. He’s often compared to Lawrence of Arabia for his youthful feats of derring-do, but these days he seems more like a British Mayor Pete.
Most recent job: universities minister
Gyimah, who on Sunday became the most recent candidate to join the race, is the only one openly backing a second referendum on Brexit and says he would vote to remain. Gyimah, a former investment banker who spent much of his childhood in his parents’ native Ghana, quit May’s Cabinet in November over objections to her Brexit plan. Given that much of the party is so opposed to a second referendum that May had to step down for even suggesting one, it seems unlikely Gyimah’s candidacy is going anywhere.
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