Tory leadership: Who will win the ultimate political prize?

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson Image copyright Getty images/Reuters

Who will lead?

In a few hours, two veteran Tory MPs will open an envelope that will contain the name of our next prime minister.

Some moments later they will deliver the congratulations or commiserations to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Shortly after that they will announce the result to the Conservative crowd, and more importantly of course, to the country.

The embedded expectation in Westminster is that the name will be Boris Johnson - unless the Tory party has been collectively deceiving itself in the past few weeks.

If it proves so, the triumph will be extraordinary. Not because of a journey Mr Johnson has been on in the last few weeks - the controversial former foreign secretary and London mayor started out as the frontrunner.

But because again and again, over many years, his own political accidents and behaviour would have ruled other politicians out.

Mr Johnson's supporters would say he has found himself in some serious scrapes.

His detractors would say that he has blundered his way through a high-profile career causing offence and putting his own interests ahead of the country's.

It wasn't so long ago that the same received wisdom in Westminster that said he could never make it, said that he had blown too many chances - his long held public ambition would never be achieved.

But it is likely that his status as Brexit's cheerleader-in-chief will see him into the job he has craved.

Allies point to his decision to quit the cabinet over Theresa May's hoped-for compromise with the EU at Chequers as the moment that set him on the path to Number 10, placing him in pole position when the departing prime minister failed to persuade Parliament of the merits of her Brexit plan time and again.

The Tories' dire polling in recent months meant this leadership race was a hunt for a potential political magician who might be able to pull off a risky trick.

This has not been a conventional contest at all, when evidence of different candidates is measured up rationally on one side or another.

It is still possible that the current foreign secretary could pull off yet another enormous political upset and win, although the Tory Party has in recent weeks taken its own pulse and found its heart beats for Mr Johnson.

Nightmare to-do list

Whoever it is, the next prime minister inherits the significant problems Mrs May has left behind.

The Tory Party is still divided over how to dig itself and the country out of the political mess of Brexit. The next prime minister will have barely the votes in Parliament to guarantee safe passage for any proposal.

Departing ministers have made clear they will hinder, rather than help their path if it involves leaving the EU without a formal comprehensive deal in place.

And neither Mr Johnson nor Mr Hunt can be remotely confident for a moment that their hope to appeal to the EU will be welcomed.

Even with a to-do list of nightmares, residence of Number 10 is the ultimate political prize - power many aspire to but only a tiny number are ever lucky enough to grasp.

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