Boris Johnson’s exit will profoundly shape post-Brexit world

Whoever now becomes British PM, they are likely to take a harder line in EU talks

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner who had been considered one of the favourites to replace David Cameron as British Prime Minister, says he will not be standing. Video: Reuters

 

In the days since last week’s EU referendum reshaped British politics, the tumult within the Labour Party over Jeremy Corbyn’s future stood in contrast to the apparently orderly Conservative leadership manoeuvring.

That changed this morning, with a succession of dramatic events culminating in Boris Johnson’s decision not to put his name forward. Johnson’s exit changes the shape of the race in a way that could have profound implications for Britain’s approach to post-Brexit negotiations with the EU.

The former London mayor, who was the leading figure in the Leave campaign, kept reporters in suspense until the very end of a scheduled appearance where he was due to launch his leadership bid.

“I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.

Michael Gove’s surprise entry into the race this morning precipitated a small stampede of MPs away from Johnson towards the justice secretary. Until this morning, Gove was effectively Johnson’s running mate, playing an important role in assuaging MPs’ doubts about the former London mayor’s suitability for the premiership.

Gove gave Johnson just five minutes notice of his announcement, which included a direct attack on his erstwhile ally.

“I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” Gove said.

Gove’s decision followed the publication on Wednesday of a leaked email from his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, urging him not to commit to Johnson without “specific assurances” on immigration. Vine said that, without Gove’s support, Johnson would not be able to reassure party members or to win the support of Rupert Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.

The Conservative leader is chosen by party members from a shortlist of two candidates selected by MPs after a series of ballots. Theresa May and Gove are now the favourites to emerge from the MPs’ primary, although Johnson’s exit means that one of the three other candidates – work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb, energy minister Andrea Leadsom, and former defence secretary Liam Fox – could be contenders to make the final cut.

May made clear at her campaign launch this morning that she regards controlling the free movement of people from the EU as a red line in post-Brexit negotiations. Gove’s statement stressed his commitment to the key promises made by the Vote Leave campaign, including those on immigration.

Johnson had hinted at a more flexible approach, stressing the importance of maintaining access to the European single market. Britain’s future relationship with the EU will be at the heart of the Conservative leadership contest, and the initial signs are that it will make it more difficult for the next prime minister to seek full membership of the single market.

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