While declaring that he endorsed “every syllable” of the prime minister’s latest speech on Brexit, he warned against a form of withdrawal that would leave Britain closely aligned with the European Union, attacked news media coverage of the exit talks and said it was “time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils.”
Mr. Johnson’s jovial, bumbling persona belies a ferocious ambition, and, after weeks of cabinet leaking, backstabbing and politicking over Brexit, a battle to succeed Mrs. May is emerging from the shadows.
The conflict has been sharpened by the newfound success of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, which held an upbeat conference last week. With his reputation for authenticity, his clear anti-austerity message and his left-wing agenda, Mr. Corbyn has appealed to many younger voters and alarmed the Tories, who are wondering how to compete.
Most seem to have concluded that the answer is not Mrs. May. There may be no immediate plot to topple her, but the prime minister’s campaign in June was so poor that few believe she will be allowed to fight the next election, which is scheduled for 2022 but could come sooner.
“It would remind voters of what she was like last time — it’s a complete nonstarter that she would carry on,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, adding that her best hope was to hang on until Britain formally left the European Union in March 2019.
The next 18 months will be dominated by Brexit, which has provoked internecine warfare in the cabinet between those who want a clean break with the bloc — a so-called hard Brexit — and those who want a less radical departure, or soft Brexit, to protect the economy from a “cliff edge” change of trading rules.
Mr. Johnson, who unlike Mrs. May campaigned to quit the bloc in last year’s referendum, has positioned himself as leader of the hard-Brexit faction. That referendum was not his first big electoral victory: He was twice elected mayor of London, and is an entertaining figure in an age of celebrity politics.
Yet some see his attention-grabbing tactics as a sign of desperation, motivated by concern that his time may be running out after a decade in the public eye. With fresher faces like James Cleverly, Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat emerging, Mr. Johnson’s best chance of winning the party leadership might be a quick contest before March 2019. There has been speculation that he is trying to provoke Mrs. May into firing him and making him a “Brexit martyr,” something she has so far resisted.
“What he has been up to will have impressed some members of Parliament, because it shows energy, chutzpah, ambition and steel,” Professor Bale said. “That is something people like to see. But is also shows that he is mercurial, unreliable and untrustworthy.”
There is unexpected competition on the party’s hard-Brexit wing from the old-fashioned right-winger Jacob Rees-Mogg, who emerged as a leadership contender this summer. Mr. Rees-Mogg denies having any such ambitions, but at the conference in Manchester he nonetheless kept himself in the headlines by comparing the European Union to the mafia, and by calmly responding to a protester’s insult with the words, “Let’s leave my despicability to one side.”
Socially conservative and theatrically upper-class, Mr. Rees-Mogg would be an odd choice as leader, but Conservative activists have embraced “Moggmania,” and the police were called to bar access to an overflowing hotel suite in which he was speaking.
“At last year’s conference it was all about Boris — this year everybody in the party wants to see Rees-Mogg,” said Joy Dennis, a Conservative Party member from West Sussex, after hearing Mr. Rees-Mogg call for the Tories to reinvent themselves as a party of free trade.
When the time comes to pick their next leader, Conservative lawmakers will select two candidates, but it will be members like Ms. Dennis who will choose between them.
For activists, like everyone else, it is often hard to keep track of all the Conservative infighting.
Earlier this year, Mrs. May’s supporters made it known that she planned to fire Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, though the election debacle deprived her of the authority to do so. Not surprisingly, relations between the two are cool, though Mr. Hammond has denied recent reports that, immediately after the referendum result, he offered to support Mr. Johnson for the leadership.
Since then Mr. Hammond has sided more with David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating Brexit — marginalizing Mr. Johnson.
All of these politicians consider themselves potential contenders to succeed Mrs. May, and all gave platform speeches in Manchester, though Mr. Hammond’s was a low-key affair.
Of the soft-Brexit candidates, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, appears well placed, despite having only just clung on to her parliamentary seat in June’s election. On Tuesday she laid out her stall by outlining plans to punish those who view terrorist material online.
But a more intriguing prospect is Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, a popular politician who could transform the image of a party desperate to appeal to some of the younger voters attracted by Labour.
Ms. Davidson, 38, is famously plain-speaking. When introduced at one meeting in Manchester as a kickboxing lesbian, she quickly shot back, “I haven’t kickboxed in years, but I am still a lesbian.”
Like all of the possible contenders, Ms. Davidson says she is not campaigning for Mrs. May’s job, but she might actually mean it. In Manchester she described the role of prime minister as “the loneliest job in the world.” To lead the British Conservative Party, she would need a Westminster seat, but she has shown no sign of seeking one. (She currently serves in the Scottish Parliament, in Edinburgh.)
That has not stopped her giving advice, however. The Conservative Party, she said in Manchester, “needs to get over its current nervous breakdown and man up a bit.”
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