Where’s Boris? Johnson takes back seat as Conservatives feud

LONDON (AP) — It was the most striking moment so far in the U.K. Conservative Party’s contest for a new leader. The five remaining candidates were asked during a televised debate to raise their hands if they would let Boris Johnson serve in their Cabinet. Not a single hand went up.

The contenders to replace Johnson are scrambling to distance themselves from the scandal-tainted politician who has resigned as party leader but remains Britain’s prime minister for a few more weeks — despite the fact that most of them have served in his government over the past three years.

Johnson, meanwhile, has largely disappeared from the scene. He has not attended any government emergency meetings about a heat wave that is forecast to bring temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) to Britain.

On Friday, Johnson visited a Royal Air Force base and took a ride in a Typhoon fighter jet, with “Top Gun”-style footage released by his office. He spent the weekend at Chequers, the country house that comes with the prime minister’s job, throwing a farewell barbecue for staff and friends.

Johnson returned to Parliament on Monday for one of his final times as prime minister for a largely symbolic vote of confidence called by the government — chiefly to give Johnson a chance to extol his own accomplishments.

To jeers from opposition lawmakers, Johnson said his “three dynamic and exhilarating years in the cockpit” had seen the British government “overcoming adversity on a scale we haven’t seen for centuries” in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of being “a vengeful squatter” in 10 Downing St.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, likened Johnson to “a sulky teenager in the bedroom, just doing what he wants and shouting at the parents once in a while.”

Political and media attention has turned to his would-be successors, who are slinging dirt at one another as they try to convince Conservative Party members they can rebuild trust in politics and defeat the opposition Labour Party at the next election, due to be held by 2024.

The field of contenders shrank from five to four on Monday as Conservative lawmakers held another elimination ballots. Lawmaker Tom Tugendhat was ousted from the race after receiving the lowest number of votes.

Rishi Sunak, who served as Treasury chief under Johnson until he resigned earlier this month, remains the front-runner but is under attack by Conservative rivals for spending billions to keep U.K. workers and businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, and raising taxes to help pay for it.

In a televised debate Sunday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Sunak of hiking taxes to the highest level in 70 years. Sunak argued the hikes were necessary to damp down soaring inflation, and accused Truss, who has promised immediate tax cuts, of peddling “something-for-nothing economics.”

Penny Mordaunt, a trade minister who has emerged as a strong challenger, has appealed in vain for an end to “mudslinging,” much of which has been directed at her. She has been accused by opponents of wanting to make it easier for people to change gender — a hot-button issue for some Conservatives — and of neglecting her government duties to prepare her leadership bid.

Conservative lawmakers will hold another elimination vote Tuesday to reduce the number of leadership candidates to three. Former Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, currently in fourth place, is the most likely evictee.

A vote Wednesday will produce two finalists who will then face a runoff by about 180,000 Conservative Party members across the country. The winner is to be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become prime minister, without the need for a national election.

Fielding said that may prove problematic for the new leader, because he or she will be chosen by a Conservative membership — “primarily white, southern, very well-off” — with political priorities very different than the general electorate.

Johnson lead the Conservatives to a commanding parliamentary majority in 2019, but he has been plagued by scandals since then, including being accused of misleading Parliament about government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.

Johnson clung to power despite being fined by police over “partygate,” but finally quit on July 7 after one scandal too many — appointing a politician accused of sexual misconduct — drove his ministers to resign en masse.

Cabinet Office Minister Kit Malthouse, a long-time Johnson ally, argued that the party’s testy debate was healthy, and predicted Conservatives would reunite in a “spirit of harmony” after the leadership campaign.

But Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that was overly optimistic.

“The manner of Johnson’s departure unfortunately injected quite a lot of poison into the (party) bloodstream,” he said. “It will take time to work its way out.”

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