One of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will be installed as our next Prime Minister at the end of July. Conservative MPs have had their say – whittling ten candidates down to two – and now the power is in the hands of Conservative members. Roughly 160,000 party card holders will have the chance to vote, on their say-so the new resident of Downing Street will be selected.
So what will happen? Well, it is overwhelmingly likely that the membership will back Boris. It was always the first stages of this idiosyncratic race that were supposed to be tricky for the former Foreign Secretary. His colleagues, those he has worked with and who know him best, are far more sceptical about Boris’ charms than are the members. ‘Operation Arse’ – a concerted effort by a plurality of Scottish Tory MPs to keep him off the final ticket – was just one of a number of plots to block Boris’ path to power. These have all failed. Why? Because the Conservative Party is perceived to be in existential danger and Boris, for all his flaws, is seen as a big enough beast to maybe (just maybe) save the thing at the last minute. The membership appear to agree, indeed the membership have thought this for a very long time. They want him because he makes them feel good about themselves, because he agrees with them on tax and on Europe, because they remember how good it felt when he won the mayoralty in 2008.
Is there any hope for Jeremy Hunt? Of course. You’ve got to be in it to win it and for as long as you are in it there is always a chance. One doubts very much that even Jeremy Hunt feels it is probable that he will become the next Prime Minister. But it is possible. And for now, that’s what matters.
Hunt will be campaigning on a tight rope, though. Differentiation from Boris is important if he wants this contest to feel like it is actually being contested. But too much differentiation might limit Hunt’s chances of a really big job when Boris wins. In the end, Hunt’s final pitch to colleagues was that he was well suited to this peculiar dance. He is a diplomat, after all.
So what will Hunt offer? “I’m a calm, safe pair of hands who you can trust to run the party and the country without too many upsets or embarrassments. Oh, and did I mention my time in business?” That will be the shape of it, broadly. And there is a significant minority within the membership which does distrust Boris and is sympathetic to precisely that pitch. So whilst Boris will almost certainly win, Jeremy needn’t worry too much about a stinging humiliation.
All of which should make for a quiet, safe, collegiate – boring, if we are honest – little set-up. Jeremy gets a pat on the back. Boris gets his premiership. A coronation in all but name. That is certainly what Lynton Crosby and Gavin Williamson – both advisers to Johnson – hope.
But nature abhors a vacuum – in politics worst of all. A month of smiles and mutual admiration and mild disagreement is not going to be much fun for the assorted hacks and apparatchiks compelled to follow the race up and down the country. The Tour de France would be a terrific bore to watch if the yellow jersey’d front runner was allowed to set off days before his competitors, on a motor bike. So expect mischief to be made and for there to be a few bumps in the road yet, for Boris. Can anything unseat him? It is unlikely. But with Boris Johnson you never really know when the wheels might come off.