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COUNTDOWN TO 10 DOWNING ST

The clock is counting down to the installation of the next British prime minister.

Votes will be counted on Monday, July 22nd. The decision is expected by the early hours of Tuesday, if not earlier.

But it’s not an election ‘as usual’.

This particular leadership ‘selection’ is unprecedented in that while there have been leadership changes within ruling parties in the UK before, it’s the first time that it's going to a membership vote only.

This time though, it has attracted more public interest and even concern.

The level of interest is underlined by the pivotal moment in British politics represented by Brexit, and concern as the next prime minister will be ‘selected’ by approximately 0.2% of the population.

That number is said to be 160,000 members of Conservative Party members, euphemistically referred too as ‘the selectorate’, whose ballots by postal vote will select the next British prime minister.

For the past six weeks, the incumbent foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt and his immediate predecessor in that post, Boris Johnson, have been going head-to-head in what at times bordered on a fractious campaign to replace Theresa May.

With an in-tray overflowing with weighty national and global issues awaiting the next British prime minister, it’s Brexit which by far has been the dominant issue of their campaign, even before the original ten (plus others who withdrew) were whittled down to two.

Mrs May announced on June 7th that she was quitting the role - some say she jumped before she was pushed - after failing to deliver Brexit; the process of Britain leaving membership of the European Union.

The choice to leave the EU was determined by a very narrow 52% (Leave) to 48% (Remain) in a referendum in 2016, the necessity of which is still being debated.

While the British parliament had committed to accepting the outcome of the referendum, the oft-repeated mantra of ‘respecting the will of the British people’ has proven to be a political minefield.

Mrs May met the toughest opposition to her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement from within her government and party.

Mr Johnson, who is vying for her job, had resigned on July 9th 2018 in a bitter row with the now caretaker-Prime Minister May over her handling of Brexit.

His opponent bidding for her job, Jeremy Hunt, was chosen by Mrs May as Boris Johnson’ replacement as foreign secretary.

During their six week campaign both have distanced themselves from Mrs May’s Brexit plans.

As the days slip by to the counting of the postal ballots, the more urbane Mr Hunt who has trailed the outspoken Mr Johnson, seems to be narrowing the gap - at least in indicating that he too might opt for a 'no-deal Brexit'.

Mr Johnson has been adamant that he is prepared to drag the UK out of the EU without a deal - hence, no-deal Brexit - if London and Brussels fail to reach a new Withdrawal Agreement.

A so-called backstop arrangement reached by Mrs May with the European Union over the border between the Irish Republic and British-controlled Northern Ireland, is a key sticking point for front-runner Mr Johnson.

He wants it scrapped. If not, he says he will force through a ‘no-deal Brexit’.

Mr Johnson has gone as far as indicating that he is prepared to force a suspension of the British parliament to push it through.

That has raised numerous questions about its constitutional implications.

For his part, Mr Hunt, who had previously adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the EU on reviewing Mrs May's Brexit withdrawal deal, has recently appeared to be leaning towards his opponent's no-deal stance.

As one prominent British political commentator put it this week, both men seem to be “shape-shifting into each other.”

The European Commission had repeatedly stated its unwillingness to return to reopen negotiations after two years of talks with Mrs May’s government resulted in the Withdrawal Agreement - now seemingly jettisoned by the UK.

However, just this week the new, incoming head of the Commission, in a departure from her predecessors who had hammered out the previous ‘deal’, hinted that talks more time could be added to review it.

After failing to meet a March 29th implementation date and several postponements since then, the Withdrawal Agreement is still on the EU calendar to be implemented by October 31st.

If Britain defaults on that date, we’ll be into ‘no-deal’ territory - unless what appears to be signs of an olive branch from the EU are accepted.

Before all that though, there is the matter of ‘selecting’ the next British prime minister.

To date, most polls have suggested that Mr Johnson will be handed the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Next Tuesday we'll know.

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