Introducing: Britain’s next prime minister
No, it’s not Boris Johnson, who surprisingly withdrew from the running to be the next Tory leader yesterday. Who will it be instead? And does the country need an optimist or a realist?
Cameras were rolling. Microphones were poised. But the podium was empty. At 11:40am yesterday, a roomful of journalists were watching the clock — Boris Johnson had to announce his entry to the Tory leadership contest by midday, and there was still no sign of him.
Finally, he appeared. He began to lay out his vision for Britain’s bright future outside the EU. There is inequality that must be faced, he said, but the ‘prophets of doom’ are wrong about Brexit: the UK will soon flourish. ‘That is the agenda for the next prime minister of this country,’ he said. And then the punchline: ‘That person cannot be me.’
Britain, not for the first time this week, was stunned. The tale of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, two Bullingdon boys competing to run the country, was over.
But in the end it was not Cameron behind his rival Johnson’s downfall. It was Michael Gove, Cameron’s former best friend, who had broken that friendship by campaigning for Brexit alongside Johnson. Only hours before, Gove had been running Johnson’s campaign for prime minister. But yesterday morning, he made a shock announcement of his own: ‘Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.’
So now it is Gove who could lead Britain through the uncertain years it now faces. He is known as a ‘radical’ politician with an optimistic vision for Britain’s future.
He campaigned hard in the referendum, and yesterday said that Brexit was a ‘unique chance to heal divisions, give everyone a stake in the future and set an example as the most creative, innovative and progressive country in the world.’
His main challenger, Theresa May, is more reserved. She has kept out of personal squabbles at Westminster to quietly focus on her job as home secretary, which she has held for the last six years.
She is not driven by ‘ideological fervour’, she said. She is not ‘showy’. Brexit is not a ‘silver bullet’. But she is dedicated to improving ordinary people’s lives for the better. ‘You can judge me by my record,’ she concluded.
Into the breach
This is what Britain needs, say May’s supporters. For too long, Westminster has been run by competitive, reckless men who put their ambitions before the country and treated politics like a game. There is no place for that in turbulent times; the UK needs a calm leader who will get on with the job at hand, and who is realistic about what she can achieve.
Not so, say Gove fans. Britain has just made one of the most revolutionary decisions in its history: it needs a bold, transformative leader to carry it forward with passion and optimism. That way it will not just survive the uncertainty: it will come out far stronger.
- Who would you like to be Britain’s next prime minister?
- Does Britain after Brexit need optimism, or realism?
- It is September later this year. The new prime minister has sat down at their desk on the first day of their new job. Write a memo explaining the most important three things you think they should do next.
- The race to become the next prime minister has featured some shocking twists and turns. In groups, write a political sketch which re-enacts the events of the last week.
Some People Say...
“The best leaders don’t want to be in charge, they want to make a difference.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So one Tory replaces another. So what?
- The next prime minister has a huge job to do as the government negotiates Britain’s exit from the EU. Essentially, there are two opposing red lines: access to the single market to protect current jobs, and restricting the free movement of people — which comes with being part of the single market. Whichever they choose will define Britain’s future for years.
- Will it definitely be May or Gove?
- They are the two favourites, but there are three more MPs in the running: work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb, energy minister Andrea Leadsom, and Liam Fox. The five candidates will be whittled down to two by Tory MPs, and then party members will choose the winner. It’s possible that the winner could call a general election, which another party might win.
- Prophets of doom
- The majority of economists, scientists and security experts warned against Brexit. UK and world financial and stock markets fell upon last week’s decision; there has since been some recovery and Brexiteers argue there will be improved prospects once the future is more certain.
- Both Johnson and Cameron, who attended Eton as schoolboys, were members of the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford University drinking society.
- Michael Gove
- The adopted son of a fish merchant and a lab assistant, Gove grew up to be a divisive politician. Tory MPs admire him for his fierce intelligence but he made enemies of a lot of teachers when in charge of education.
- When he was secretary of state for education, Gove had pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X on his office wall, hard left figures who made unlikely role models for a Conservative minister.
- Theresa May
- Like Gove, May does not come from a particularly privileged background and in 2002 she slammed the Conservatives for their image as a ‘nasty party’. Now, she is the longest serving home secretary for more than 50 years.