- Britain’s next prime minister will be decided by the Conservative members of parliament (MPs).
- Simon Usherwood, reader in politics at the University of Surrey and deputy director of the UK.
- David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party.
London, United Kingdom – The elusive favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister emerged unscathed from a television debate – that failed to scrutinise his pledge to take the UK out of the European Union without a Brexit deal – despite refusing to take part.
Boris Johnson – who was “empty chaired” in the Channel 4 programme – risked coming under sustained fire from five rivals seeking to lead the ruling Conservative Party and hence become Britain’s next leader.
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Rank outsider Rory Stewart – who has mounted a credible challenge to Johnson by advocating a more moderate Brexit position – scored well with the audience.
An ongoing theme in the press has been that Johnson – a highly paid newspaper columnist whose florid language often gets him into trouble – retains the potential to ruin his own chances.
His five rivals in the Channel 4 debate – the first in a contest set to conclude in July – largely refrained from attacking him in his absence, saving their animosity for the Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Only Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – seen as one of the likeliest eventual challengers as the field is narrowed down to two candidates to be put to a vote of Conservative Party members – went on the attack.
“We have been talking about Brexit for 25 minutes and where is Boris?” asked Hunt.
“If he can’t join this team with five colleagues, how is he going to fare with 27 European countries? He should be here to answer that question.”
Simon Usherwood, reader in politics at the University of Surrey and deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, said the debate was not a “game changer” and Johnson’s absence left one with a “ghost at the feast feeling”.
A former foreign secretary who resigned in protest at the Brexit deal reached with the EU by Prime Minister Theresa May, Johnson won 114 MPs’ votes in the first round of voting last week, giving him a commanding lead in the race to succeed her.
However, observers will be watching carefully how he fares in a debate on the state broadcaster BBC scheduled for Tuesday – after at least one of last night’s candidates is eliminated.
David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, said: “The only real question is: will Boris ruin his chances in the next debate?”
Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall council – a region in the West Midlands that voted heavily for Brexit – said: “I don’t think he will win: he was the man who was going to lose this election rather than win it.
“Boris has got great charisma. People on the street love him. But conversely there are those in government and local government who say he keeps dropping the ball.”