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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain May 22, 2019. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters

Who will inherit the Brexit fight? A guide to the UK’s prime minister race

The United Kingdom came one step closer to determining its next prime minister Thursday after the Conservative Party held the first round of votes to pick a successor for outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May.

Boris Johnson, who was considered the frontrunner before the votes began, solidified his lead by finishing first with 114 votes out of the Conservative Party’s 313-member bloc in the House of Commons. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt finished second with 43 votes.

The interim leadership selection process is very different than the British general election, in which the public has the final say over which party gets to form the new government. In this case members of parliament from the Conservative Party get the first shot at winnowing the candidates down to two, and then the vote is opened up to all members of the party.

The most important job for whoever wins the leadership election will be finding the least messy way to extricate the United Kingdom from the European Union, a process known as Brexit that voters approved in a controversial 2016 referendum.

Brexit has dominated the leadership race. The biggest point of debate among the candidates has been the terms of the exit agreement, specifically whether the UK should leave by the Oct. 31st deadline regardless of whether it has a deal with the European Union on the details of the divorce. Several leading candidates favor a “no-deal Brexit” in which Britain leaves the EU by the deadline, deal or no deal. Supporters of the no-deal Brexit approach have largely also insisted that they can use that threat to reopen negotiations, although the EU has flatly rejected that notion.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said recently that the agreement “is not a treaty between Theresa May and Juncker. It is a treaty between the UK and the EU. It has to be respected by whoever is the next British prime minister.”

Critics say that a no-deal Brexit would have devastating economic consequences, as tariffs could skyrocket overnight if the UK makes a sudden departure from the EU customs zone.

But the deal which May negotiated, and which led to her resignation last month, failed to garner a simple majority of parliament three times.

The main sticking point in the negotiations was the indefinite nature of the UK’s ties to the EU’s customs and trade structures post-Brexit. May’s agreement envisioned preserving those links until the two sides figured out how to let Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, leave the European Union without forcing a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, which is also part of the EU.

Such a border was seen as contravening the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of fighting in Northern Ireland. May’s temporary solution to the Ireland issue is now called the “backstop,” but neither May nor any of her colleagues have come up with a viable alternative.

How the leadership selection process works

May’s resignation announcement triggered the UK’s unique system for choosing a new leader of the governing party and thus the country.

First, candidates in the party seeking consideration had to receive the backing of at least eight of their House of Commons colleagues, a hurdle that 10 hopefuls cleared earlier this week. On Thursday, members began whittling down the candidates with the first in a series of votes. Candidates then have to clear an increasingly higher threshold of votes as the rounds continue. This first round required a minimum of 16 votes, which eliminated three candidates who failed to meet that threshold.

The next round of votes is Tuesday. When only two candidates are left, the election goes before the approximately 160,000 members of the Conservative Party, who will vote by mail.

Because the slate of candidates was only confirmed Monday, there is no reliable public opinion polling. At this point, each candidate’s prospects are tied to their name recognition, national profile, and position in the Brexit debate.

With one round of voting done, here’s a look at who’s left and where they stand on Brexit, the biggest issue for Britons at the moment, as well as their views on President Donald Trump.

The candidates

Boris Johnson, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, former foreign secretary, and former mayor of London

Votes received: 114.

View on Brexit: Johnson said that if he were the next prime minister, he would withhold the UK’s £39 billion “divorce” settlement until the EU renegotiates the deal. But he also said that if the EU refuses, he would be prepared to lead the UK out of the union by the current deadline, Oct. 31st, with or without a deal. Johnson quit as May’s foreign secretary last year in protest of her deal with the EU. While he was one of the most prominent backers of the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum, he wasn’t always a full-throated Brexiteer. In the runup to the referendum, Johnson kept his colleagues, and the British public, in suspense before finally announcing what he called an “agonisingly difficult” decision to back the Leave campaign.

View of Trump: In 2015, he said then-candidate Trump’s remarks about unsafe areas of London “betray a quite stupefying ignorance.” He also criticized Trump’s 2017 executive order temporarily banning people traveling to the United States from majority-Muslim countries, calling it “divisive and wrong.” For his part, Trump lavished praise on Johnson during his recent visit to London, saying that he would “do a good job” as May’s replacement.

Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary

Votes received: 43.

View on Brexit: Hunt’s biggest contrast with Johnson, whose position he assumed last July, is his skepticism over a no-deal Brexit. He said the Conservative Party would be “annihilated” in the next general election if they went through with that plan. But Hunt shares Johnson’s confidence that the Europeans would be willing to renegotiate Brexit, despite the EU’s insistence otherwise. Hunt has cited his private conversations with European leaders as reasons for his optimism. He has also pitched himself as the “serious leader” who can safely lead the UK through Brexit. Hunt originally backed the Remain option during the 2016 referendum, but by October of the following year said he changed his mind because of the European Commission’s “arrogance” during divorce negotiations.

View of Trump: Over the weekend, Hunt said of the U.S. president: “I get on well with President Trump. That doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything, but I respect someone who is prepared to stand up for America.” Hunt also suggested he possesses the sort of negotiating savvy which Trump claims he has. “This is someone who knows how to negotiate a deal and as a fellow entrepreneur I look at that and say that is what we have got to do now with Brexit.” During a press conference last week, Trump said of Hunt, “I know Jeremy, I think he would do a very good job” as prime minister.

Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath, Environment Secretary

Votes received: 37.

View on Brexit: Gove has been a Brexit supporter since the referendum vote was announced in February 2016. More recently he said he believes the Oct. 31st deadline for the UK to leave the EU is “arbitrary” and that he’d be willing to ask for another extension, assuming the EU would be open to renegotiating, which it has repeatedly said it is not. Given the choice between a no-deal Brexit and no Brexit at all, however, Gove said he’d choose the former.

Dominic Raab, Member of Parliament for Esher and Walton, former Brexit secretary (resigned November 2018)

Votes received: 27.

View on Brexit: Raab left May’s government in November 2018 along with several other Tory candidates, in protest of the deal she reached with the EU. He served as Brexit secretary, the position responsible for overseeing the divorce from the EU. There have been three Brexit secretaries since the referendum was passed.

More recently, Raab made waves by saying he wouldn’t rule out dissolving parliament in order to prevent members from blocking a no-deal Brexit if the next prime minister can’t renegotiate the deal with the EU. Critics have noted that such a move would involve the Queen and spark a constitutional crisis because the monarch is officially in charge of ending parliamentary sessions.

Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove, Home Secretary

Votes received: 23.

View on Brexit: A self-proclaimed Eurosceptic, Javid voted in 2016 to remain in the European Union but said that he would remain a “Brussels Basher.” Since then, however, he has done a 180-degree shift, advocating for a no-deal Brexit over all other options. In that event, Javid has proposed that an emergency, no-deal Brexit budget be arranged in advance.

View of Trump: Javid criticized Trump in 2017 after the U.S. president retweeted Islamophobic posts from the extremist group Britain First. Javid tweeted that Trump “endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organization that hates me and people like me. He is wrong and I refuse to let it go and say nothing.” Javid was also the only holder of a British high office to not be invited to the state dinner held in Trump’s honor at Buckingham Palace during his visit earlier this month.

Matt Hancock, Member of Parliament for West Suffolk, Health Secretary

Votes received: 20.

View on Brexit: Hancock supported the Remain campaign in 2016 and has since dismissed the idea of a no-deal Brexit. “The brutal reality is, ‘no deal’ is not a policy choice available to the next prime minister,” he said in May.

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border, International Development Secretary

Votes received: 19.

View on Brexit: Stewart backed the Remain campaign in 2016. But after the referendum he said MPs should be “energetic and optimistic” about implementing the voters’ decision.

He has also broken with most of the other candidates on two points: reopening talks with the EU, and a no-deal Brexit. He cast doubt on the prospects of reaching a new deal with Europe by the Oct. 31st deadline, and said candidates promising a no-deal Brexit were “telling you fairy stories” because such a move would never pass a parliamentary vote. Stewart’s contrarian, social media-driven campaign has sparked interest among commentators and the public who might have otherwise overlooked the dark-horse candidate.

View of Trump: Stewart has said his own popularity on social media makes him “the sort of Trumpian anti-Trump.” He noted that one of his videos dismissing the notion of a no-deal Brexit “got 2 million views, which is more than [Trump] was getting on some of his tweets.”

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