Written by Andrew Gimson, a Lodestone Associate, biographer of Boris Johnson and contributing editor to ConservativeHome
There comes a point in most selection battles when voters stampede towards the winning side, and thereby convert a modest advantage into a decisive victory. Conservative MPs may already be quite near that moment of decision. For although in an ideal world most of them would rather not be led by Boris Johnson,in the fallen world which they actually inhabit, they have failed as yet to find a viable ‘Stop Boris’ candidate.
Michael Gove is the most formidable of his opponents. He has won golden opinions as a departmental minister (though not from teachers or, more recently, from farmers). His winding-up speech in the no confidence debate in January demonstrated his gifts as a parliamentarian. He has an intellectual audacity which captures the attention of Westminster.
His weakness lies in his connection, or lack of connection, with the wider public. Could he lead the Conservatives to victory in a general election? That is the doubt which may prevent him from developing the momentum he needs. If one is a third-rate Tory MP in his fifties who is realistic enough to know he is unemployable in any other capacity, then it looks like a career-threatening risk to replace Theresa May with another leader to whom the voters may never warm.
The same objection applies to Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and the rest. All have virtues, but from an electoral point of view, all of them are unproven quantities. They may have what it takes to carry people with them, but they have not yet given any sign of it. Among the outsiders, only Rory Stewart, with his eccentric and engaging videos of himself encountering members of the public in unexpected places, has recognised that one of the qualifications needed by the next leader is the ability to, as it were, get on with the natives.
Johnson’s campaign video shows him on the doorstep. It portrays him as the one man who can persuade reluctant voters to back the Conservatives. Here is a man who does connect. He can enter a provincial shopping centre on a quiet Wednesday afternoon and transform the atmosphere.
This ability arouses the envy and mistrust of serious-minded Westminster types. They see in it something demagogic, populist, unserious, uncontrollable. It reminds them of Donald Trump.
But the comparison with Trump is illuminating. He won by being a brilliant performer. He is always doing something which captures the agenda. He understands the theatre of politics in a way that his solemn, prudent, priggish opponents never will. The Americans love a performer, someone capable of reacting spontaneously, and so, as it happens, do many Britons.
Johnson established himself as a performer when he went on Have I Got News For You over 20 years ago. He had a comic incompetence about him which enchanted the viewers. But one can have too much of a good thing. This quality does not enchant the Conservative MPs whose support he needs in order to get to the final two between whom the party members will decide.
So Johnson has stopped telling jokes. He did this before, when taking on Ken Livingstone in London in 2008. For several months Johnson dared to be dull. He knew he had to reassure people that if they elected him, they would not find themselves saddled with a clown.
He has done the same this time. His column in the Telegraph has become sober, and so has his programme: more spending on education and health, and more police officers on the streets, able when necessary to carry out stop and search. The revenue for these One Nation measures will be produced by business-friendly policies which promote growth.
His critics will dismiss as mere wishful thinking the latter bit of this, and will also insist, with the air of those in possession of superior knowledge, that he cannot break the Brexit deadlock. They may or may not be right about that, but the error they make about Johnson is to underestimate him. He is a more determined and versatile competitor than they are willing to admit. He intends to turn himself into a statesman, and the great British public would be entranced by such a transformation, especially as it would distress so many pompous commentators.
About Andrew Gimson
Andrew Gimson is an author, political journalist and an Associate at Lodestone. He writes for a wide range of newspapers and magazines, and as Contributing Editor to Conservative Home, specialises in interviewing Cabinet ministers and other leading politicians. His biography of the Foreign Secretary – Boris: the Adventures of Boris Johnson – was described by reviewers as “brilliant” and “an effervescent delight”, and was reissued in September 2016 in a new and fully updated edition. He is also the author of Gimson’s Kingsand Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066. He started his career in the Conservative Research Department and has served as Deputy Editor of the Spectator, political columnist at the Independent on Sunday, and Berlin correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.