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Members Of Britain's Conservative Party Begin Voting For New Leader


As another Brexit deadline looms, members of Britain's Conservative Party have begun voting for a new leader who will also be the next prime minister. Their options - Jeremy Hunt, the clean-cut, policy-oriented foreign secretary, or the favorite, Boris Johnson, the rumpled former London mayor, a charismatic populist who reminds many of Donald Trump. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from a candidate's forum today in the northeast of England.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Many Conservative Party members love Boris Johnson's blunt style, members like Terry Walker, who works for the Royal Mail and lives in the city of Sunderland, which voted heavily for Brexit.

TERRY WALKER: Boris tends to say what he thinks, and he has been criticized in the past for some of his comments. But I like that - same as Donald Trump.

LANGFITT: Walker cited an example last year from Johnson's column in London's Daily Telegraph, in which he wrote that women in burqas reminded him of mailboxes.

WALKER: All you could see is the eyes, right? Well, I agree with that because you can't see their identity. That caused a lot of fuss in this country because he said what he thought and what a lot of people thought as well but were scared to say their comments, you see?

LANGFITT: Melva Steckles says Trump and Johnson share other traits that she doesn't like. Steckles, who served as leader of the district council in nearby Richmondshire, says both are showmen who shoot from the hip.

MELVA STECKLES: With Trump on your side of the pond (laughter) and Boris over this side, I do worry a bit about the details that get into the nub of the issue. Because Trump just seems to blast out - doesn't he? - on his Twitter, and that's a bit Boris as well.

LANGFITT: Both candidates back Brexit, but given the stakes the country faces, Steckles much prefers Hunt, who ran England's National Health Service before taking over foreign affairs.

STECKLES: I feel it's a safer pair of hands in the ways that the world is at the moment. I'm not for all the razzmatazz, necessarily; I want somebody who can lead the party, unite the party back together and get on with the job.

LANGFITT: During today's forum, Hunt came off like an earnest, well-prepared student, with lots of ideas for the future.


JEREMY HUNT: We could be the country that's home to the fourth industrial revolution - driverless cars, drones, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology - all these things that will set us up for the future.

LANGFITT: Meanwhile, Johnson energized the crowd with his trademark humor, charisma and defiance, telling party members the country must stick to the new October 31 deadline to leave the EU, even if that means walking away with no withdrawal agreement.


BORIS JOHNSON: We have to believe in ourselves. We've had enough of defeatism and negativity from this government. The British people are fed up with being told that they can't do X, Y or Z when we know perfectly well that we can. I think that our...


LANGFITT: In fact, until last year, Johnson was a member of that government. Many of Johnson's critics see him as a political opportunist, think he only backed Brexit to position himself to become prime minister. At today's forum, the host caught Johnson off guard with this question.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can you give an example in your political life when you've set your own self-interest aside for the benefit of the country?

JOHNSON: Well, it's a good question. But I would - you know, I don't - obviously - embarrassing but true. But...

LANGFITT: Johnson struggled but eventually came up with an example of self-sacrifice - he said devoting himself to politics means it will take him much longer to finish writing a book on Shakespeare.


JOHNSON: And that means that that unjustly neglected author will...


JOHNSON: ...Will no longer, you know, get the treatment he deserves.

LANGFITT: And British readers will suffer, to which the crowd laughed, just as Johnson intended.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Darlington, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAM'S "MUSIC FOR THE LAST COUPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.