Battle for Number 10 begins as Theresa May resigns – what happens next?


The FT’s James Blitz has taken a look at how the frontrunner for Tory party leader and hence prime minister could deal with negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU.

Theresa May’s resignation paves the way for a Conservative party leadership contest. And at the outset, Boris Johnson is the unquestioned frontrunner.

This is not a totally comfortable position for the 54-year-old former foreign secretary to be in. After all, nearly every frontrunner at the start of the race ultimately failed to clinch the crown.

But even allowing for Mr Johnson’s mercurial character — and a remarkable ability to self-destruct — he has momentum this time for several reasons.

First, he is by far the most popular candidate in the eyes of the Conservative party’s 120,000 activists. It is those activists who will choose between the final two candidates selected by the parliamentary party.

Even in a final race against his closest competitor — Dominic Raab — Mr Johnson has a commanding lead of 59 per cent to 41 per cent, according to YouGov.

Second, the impending European election result will boost him. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is certain to storm to victory. Faced by what they deem an existential threat, Conservatives will be even more determined to choose the one candidate who can “out-Farage Farage”.

Third, Mr Johnson has the good fortune to be in the race against Mr Raab, an even more maximalist Brexiter committed to no deal. This allows Mr Johnson to appeal to the 60 one-nation Tory MPs, led by Amber Rudd, as a more moderate figure who seeks an orderly departure from the EU.

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Much of the attention in the weeks ahead will therefore be on Mr Johnson and what his appointment would ultimately mean for Brexit.

In Europe, many will fear he will turn out to be a swashbuckling figure who — whatever assurances he gives in the leadership campaign — will ultimately drive the UK to an disorderly no deal.

But there is a strong hope in some EU capitals that Mr Johnson will come into Downing Street and be in a better place to give Mrs May’s Brexit deal that final push across the line that she failed to achieve.

The argument here is that Mrs May has, in reality, done much of the heavy lifting on Brexit. The withdrawal agreement cannot be changed and it received Mr Johnson’s support in the last House of Commons vote in March.

But the thinking is that Mr Johnson would have the political clout to make changes to the political declaration, which defines the future trade framework, in a way that wins wider support.

“May was such a poor communicator and political manager that she simply couldn’t forge a consensus in the Commons enabling a move to phase two and the wider trade negotiation,” said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group consultancy. “The question being pondered in the EU is whether Johnson would be in a better place to sell what is essentially the same deal as May’s, but with a few changes to the political declaration.”

Predicting Mr Johnson’s next move is a dangerous game. He is the most unpredictable of politicians. But if he succeeds Mrs May, he might end up demonstrating more of the political clout and charisma that is needed to get an orderly Brexit done.

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