Written by Lodestone Associate Andrew Gimson, Contributing Editor to ConservativeHome, and author of Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s critics within the parliamentary Conservative party, who are numerous, have made such a hash of opposing his leadership bid that they now admit he can only defeat himself. They looked around for a Stop Boris candidate, and nine came forward.
That was an absurdly large number, and so far all they have managed to do is to destroy each other’s chances. In the first round of voting by Tory MPs, Johnson got 114 votes, while the next three candidates managed 107 between them.
On Sunday night, the five anti-Johnson candidates who had survived the first round turned up for the Channel 4 debate, and found themselves engaged in a demeaning battle for second place. Johnson himself refused to take part in this dreary contest, but says he will participate in the BBC debate on Tuesday night, after the second round of voting by MPs.
What is the Johnson campaign doing right? It is offering him as the antidote to several of Theresa May’s most infuriating characteristics.
By the end of her prime ministership, marked by the humiliation for her party of getting 8.8 per cent in the European elections, she had become indefensible. She lasted as long as she did because it was thought she might as well be allowed to complete, and if necessary take the blame for, the first, very difficult, phase of Brexit, which was supposed to culminate in the country’s departure from the EU on 29th March.
As long as that seemed to be going to happen, the Conservative Party’s poll ratings remained OK. But once she missed her self-imposed deadline, the ratings collapsed, and not just she but her whole style of leadership – dutiful, timid, managerial, obstinate, inflexible, uncollegiate – was discredited.
At Johnson’s launch on the morning of Wednesday 12th June, I found myself sitting at the back of the room, surrounded by a large number of Tory MPs, many of them so well known that at any other launch (I managed to attend seven of the nine other events) they would have been put at the front, to show what impressive supporters the candidate had recruited. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, acted as the warm-up act for Johnson, and when he declared in his booming voice that “a managerial and bureaucratic approach to politics will not suffice”, he received heartfelt applause from the dozens of his parliamentary colleagues sitting or standing at the back.
Cox went on to promise that Johnson “will put together a brilliant team”. “Hear, hear,” an able and energetic MP in the row in front of me shouted. The outgoing Prime Minister valued discretion more than she valued brains. Her team at Number Ten was conscientious, but her inner core of trusted confidants was pitifully small, and nobody could describe it as brilliant.
In the 2016 leadership race, Johnson forfeited the support of Michael Gove in part by seeming, and indeed being, totally disorganised. That is not a mistake he has repeated this time. As his chief of staff, he recruited James Wharton, MP for Stockton South from 2010-17, so a man who knows and is respected by the intake of 2010, when Johnson was out of Parliament.
Grant Shapps, the MP for Welwyn Hatfield and a former Conservative Party Chairman, has compiled spreadsheets for the Johnson campaign which are said by those who have seen them to be things of remarkable beauty, containing as they do staggering amounts of information about Conservative MPs. This Johnson campaign is not flying blind.
In the first round of voting, it knew exactly how much support it was going to get, and let it be known that it would be surprised and delighted if it got somewhat less than that.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a long-standing supporter of Johnson, has helped to bring over other notable Eurosceptics, including Steve Baker, Steve Barclay, Peter Bone, Bill Cash, Iain Duncan Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Owen Paterson and John Redwood. It is frankly catastrophic for Dominic Raab, a leadership contender standing as the rising hope of the stern, unbending Eurosceptics, not to have garnered the support of these MPs.
Gavin Williamson, the former Defence Secretary and a key member of May’s campaign in 2016, has this time been urging MPs to clamber aboard the Johnson bandwagon. As a former Chief Whip, he has an intimate knowledge of the parliamentary party, and as a former May supporter who now detests her, he understands why so many Tories have concluded she is simply not up to it.
In the background is the formidable figure of Sir Lynton Crosby, who helped see Johnson to victory in the London mayoral races of 2008 and 2012. Crosby has total contempt for self-important columnists who imagine their pronouncements might sway the result. He will have fortified Johnson in the belief that it does not matter in the slightest to be denounced by Matthew Parris in the Times, Max Hastings in the Daily Mail and Simon Heffer in the New Statesman.
If anything, these attacks work to Johnson’s advantage, for they strengthen his credentials as an anti-Establishment figure, and lead his opponents to underestimate his abilities, and to cling to the hope that he will somehow self-destruct. Crosby’s hand can be seen in Johnson’s reticent approach to giving broadcast interviews. This infuriates the press, but enables Johnson to seem a more confident, authoritative and reliable figure, keeping his own council above the fray rather than fighting desperately for every vote. His silence reassures those Tories who detested his tendency in the past to parry difficult questions by using bizarre and not strictly accurate language. The phrase “pyramid of piffle” is enjoyably vivid, but was not a satisfactory way to deal with questions about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. Silence would have been preferable.
Last but not least, Johnson has a new woman in his life, Carrie Symonds, who has an excellent grasp of how the Conservative Party works. John Whittingdale, for whom Symonds worked as a special adviser when he was Culture Secretary, cannot speak too highly of her. And Whittingdale is a professional, trained in the Conservative Research Department and employed while still a young man by Margaret Thatcher. He knows the difference between competent and incompetent briefing, steady and erratic judgment. Symonds is now, in effect, Johnson’s special adviser, a role which neither of his wives, Allegra Mostyn-Owen and Marina Wheeler, ever had the slightest inclination to play. His shorter hair and trimmer figure are but the outward signs that he is under new and more professional management.
On Thursday of last week, loitering in the Committee Corridor outside the room where Tory MPs were casting their votes in the first ballot, I was approached by a parliamentarian whom I have known for several decades. He had already come out for Johnson, but wondered what “reputational damage” he himself might suffer if it were all to go wrong.
I could not think quite how to answer him, for the truth is that in politics, things very often do go wrong. Johnson might find the Brexit conundrum insoluble, or might find himself forced to deal with some other problem, as yet unthought of, which pushes its way to the front of the agenda. One cannot know. I have known him since 1987, wrote the first biography of him, always enjoy meeting him, had a wonderful time as foreign editor of the Spectator when he was its editor, but am not a member of the Conservative party, so am an observer rather than a participant in this contest. I merely observe that on present form, he is likely to win, and that if he does, he has good chances of exceeding the low expectations which his critics have of him. Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Nigel Farage is unbeatable.
What of the other contenders? Last Friday, Paul Goodman and I interviewed the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in his wonderful official residence, 1 Carlton Gardens, for ConservativeHome. He is a high-grade minister, as his record tenure of the Health portfolio shows. But although he came second to Johnson in the first round, it is hard to see this voice of the British Establishment forming a close enough connection with the wider British public to develop any serious momentum.
Michael Gove is a brilliant figure, the best parliamentary debater in the Conservative party, and a first-rate reforming minister. But his betrayal of Johnson in 2016, and the recent drugs revelations, make him seem inconstant, as does his nimble but pugnacious style. He has the odd effect of making Johnson seem relatively reliable.
Sajid Javid is supported by the friends he made at Exeter University, Robert Halfon, Tim Montgomerie and David Burrowes. But they have devised an anti-old-school-tie campaign which seems a bit out of date, and also a bit unfair to David Cameron. Etonians can also be modernisers, as Harold Macmillan showed.
That leaves Rory Stewart, who happens also to be an Etonian. He is in many ways the star of the show. On Saturday I spent several hours with him in Poplar. He has an astute and amiable wife, Shoshana, who has taken six weeks off work to help him run his campaign. He himself is almost miraculously fluent and resourceful.
He is very good at striking up a rapport with complete strangers, and has written a remarkable book, The Places in Between, about walking alone across Afghanistan, a journey he would not have survived if he were not good at getting on with strangers. He is excellent with floating voters, many of whom came to talk to him in Poplar.
And he has worked out how to use social media in order to magnify the small encounters on street corners which would otherwise count for next to nothing. This is a remarkable achievement. Here is a man who travels light and tells it as it is, with a directness and spontaneity none of the other candidates can match. He has Ken Clarke and Sir Nicholas Soames among his small band of supporters, and if he were to get into the final two, he could cause Johnson serious trouble as they went round the country performing in front of the party members.
But from the point of view of Tory MPs, Stewart looks a much riskier bet than Johnson. There is no sufficient reason why they should flock to him in sufficient numbers to get him into the final. As with Gove, his audacity has the paradoxical effect of making Johnson look the more prudent choice.
Conservative leadership battles are notoriously unpredictable. Very few people predicted in 1911 that Bonar Law would come through as the compromise candidate between two much better known figures. Baldwin was likewise an unexpected victor over Curzon in 1923. Everyone knew Eden would get the top job when Churchill was prevailed upon to stand down in 1955, but that did not turn out too well. Since then, the favourite has never won, except in 2003, when Michael Howard was elected unopposed.
Johnson is still, in a sense, the outsider. He has that quality of implausibility which many voters rather like – look across the Atlantic at Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump, or nearer to home, at Corbyn. The Establishment still disapproves of him. The chances are that he is about to score a famous victory.
He will then have to make sure that he does not fall flat on his face. But why should he gratify his enemies by doing that? He will be determined if he possibly can to succeed. He will want this Brexit business put to bed. He is a pragmatist, not an ideologist. He will see that Brussels is weary of this subject, and he will reach a deal he is able to sell even to Bill Cash, Owen Paterson and the DUP, by telling them, in effect, that they had better like it or lump it. Nigel Farage will then become irrelevant, and so will Corbyn. The Labour party will turn to Sir Keir Starmer, and Johnson will have a fight on his hands.