Boris Johnson Takes Center Stage in U.K. Leadership Shadow Play

 In World

While declaring that he endorsed “every syllable” of the prime minister’s latest speech on Brexit, he warned against a form of withdrawal that would leave Britain closely aligned with the European Union, attacked news media coverage of the exit talks and said it was “time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils.”

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Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain at the conference on Monday. She addresses party members on Wednesday, after a day of speeches from ministers widely seen as contending to replace her.

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Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Mr. Johnson’s jovial, bumbling persona belies a ferocious ambition, and, after weeks of cabinet leaking, backstabbing and politicking over Brexit, a battle to succeed Mrs. May is emerging from the shadows.

The conflict has been sharpened by the newfound success of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, which held an upbeat conference last week. With his reputation for authenticity, his clear anti-austerity message and his left-wing agenda, Mr. Corbyn has appealed to many younger voters and alarmed the Tories, who are wondering how to compete.

Most seem to have concluded that the answer is not Mrs. May. There may be no immediate plot to topple her, but the prime minister’s campaign in June was so poor that few believe she will be allowed to fight the next election, which is scheduled for 2022 but could come sooner.

“It would remind voters of what she was like last time — it’s a complete nonstarter that she would carry on,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, adding that her best hope was to hang on until Britain formally left the European Union in March 2019.

The next 18 months will be dominated by Brexit, which has provoked internecine warfare in the cabinet between those who want a clean break with the bloc — a so-called hard Brexit — and those who want a less radical departure, or soft Brexit, to protect the economy from a “cliff edge” change of trading rules.

Mr. Johnson, who unlike Mrs. May campaigned to quit the bloc in last year’s referendum, has positioned himself as leader of the hard-Brexit faction. That referendum was not his first big electoral victory: He was twice elected mayor of London, and is an entertaining figure in an age of celebrity politics.

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