LONDON - The contest to replace David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining their strategy on how to grapple with the huge consequences of last week’s Brexit vote.
The race, however, will be without the colorful Boris Johnson, the tousle-haired former London mayor, who, after falling out with his "Leave" campaign colleague, Justice Minister Michael Gove, unexpectedly decided not to contest the party leadership. Johnson said he doubted he could unify the party split between pro- and anti-EU camps.
Johnson’s withdrawal shocked political circles and dismayed Britain’s tabloid journalists, who were counting on him for lively copy. His withdrawal, some Conservatives told VOA, was linked to an extraordinary private email by Gove’s wife, the well-connected journalist Sarah Vines, to her husband. It laid bare the distrust between the top two Leave campaigners and the email leaked to the media helped propel Gove to throw his hat in the ring.
In the email, Vines also hinted at the shadowy involvement in the Conservative leadership contest of press baron Rupert Murdoch, who owns a chunk of the British press, and Daily Mail editor Lord Dacre.
Vines argued they “instinctively dislike Boris.”
With Johnson out, Theresa May, the strong-willed interior minister who reminds many in the Tory party of Margaret Thatcher, is now the favorite to replace Cameron. Just before Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, she presented herself confidently as the “unity candidate” in a feisty, no-nonsense speech that included well-aimed slaps at Johnson.
May backed the "Remain" camp in last week’s referendum, but on Thursday reached out to the party’s euro-skeptics.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she said, adding, “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict.
“There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum," she added.
May ruled out also a rerun referendum or a plebiscite on the terms of Brexit once negotiated with the European Union and ruled out an early general election.
Future of freedom of movement
May also said any subsequent free trade deal with the bloc could not include freedom of movement, a likely deal-breaker for European leaders. They are insisting any trade deal include the right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain and Britons accorded the same opportunity in EU states.
The other 27 EU member states signed a tough statement Wednesday hardening their conditions for allowing Britain access to the EU market after departure.
At the explicit demand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the statement included the non-negotiable principles of the European Union, free movement of capital, labor, services and goods.
“Access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms, the statement said.
Asked by the BBC if the European Union would shift on freedom of movement, the Anglophile Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said, “It is a non-starter.”
The Conservative leadership competition features five candidates, including Pensions Minister Stephen Crabb, who was raised in local authority housing by a single mother, an unlikely Conservative background.
As the contest got under way, there were other worrying signs that jilted EU leaders are prepared to squeeze Britain on Brexit negotiations. May said the negotiations won't be able to start until the end of the year.
France launches financial challenge
In a bid to maneuver Paris into a position to be able to grab international banking business, French President Francois Hollande is seeking EU rules that would threaten London’s status as the continent's financial capital. He wants to require banks and clearing houses involved in euro-denominated trading to do so only in the eurozone countries.
With any informal negotiations being ruled out by EU leaders before Britain’s formal notification of departure, the pre-talks positions of the British and Europeans are being pegged out very publicly via television interviews and statements to the press.
This is adding to an escalation in tension, and in the war of words, between the continent’s leaders and the British; but, as tempers flare, the two sides appear to be talking past each other.
Labor party in turmoil
Anger is not only rising when it comes to EU leaders versus the British. An open rebellion by 80 percent of Labor’s lawmakers against leftist party leader Jeremy Corbyn is turning more toxic.
Despite a vote of no-confidence in his leadership being passed earlier this week by lawmakers, Corbyn has rebuffed all appeals to resign, including from former Labor leaders Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
Corbyn is surrounded by former members of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party and Stalinist groups, including the Communist Party of Great Britain, says Labor lawmaker Mike Gapes. They also stock the constituency parties.
“They have hijacked the party and don’t care what happens to it, nor if Labor gets trounced in elections,” he told VOA. “They believe in so-called revolutionary defeatism - electoral defeat doesn’t matter for them as long as they recruit a few more members for their cadre,” he said.
Gapes added, “The Labor Party hasn’t a God-given right to exist. We are fighting an existential battle, and if Corbyn remains as party leader, we will face a wipe-out at the polls.”
Several anti-Corbyn lawmakers have been forced to call the police over death threats made by far-left party activists. Corbyn is expected to face a leadership challenge from Anna Eagle, a minister in Gordon Brown’s government.