The biggest threat to Boris’s leadership bid could be Boris himself//JAMES FOSYTHThe biggest threat to Boris’s leadership bid could be Boris himself//JAMES FOSYTH
The worse things are for the Tories, the better for Boris Johnson. If the Tories were ahead in the polls, he’d have little hope of becoming leader. MPs would choose someone more clubbable, less divisive, and more interested in them personally: who didn’t annoy so many of them so much. But Tory MPs are now contemplating an existential crisis. Tory voters are defecting en masse to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. The Conservative party’s survival may well turn on winning these voters back, and the former foreign secretary — the tribune of Leave, the buccaneering Brexiteer, the darling of the grassroots — is the most obvious person to do that. Suddenly, Boris is back and in contention for the leadership again. The question now is: can he do what it takes to win?
Ever since Theresa May lost the Tory majority in 2017, her departure has seemed inevitable. The question has been when she’d go, not if. She has survived longer than anyone expected, but now the end really is near. She’s promised to hold a vote on her Withdrawal Agreement Bill next month. If it is defeated, as nearly everyone expects, it will be over: she’ll have no options left. If by some miracle it passes, she has promised to resign once the legislation is through. Whatever happens, the Tories will have a new leader by the autumn at the latest.
Under Tory rules, the MPs choose two candidates and the members choose a winner. No one doubts that, if Johnson can do enough to make it to the membership, he’d triumph. ‘The only person who can stop Boris is Boris,’ is how one experienced hand at the heart of government puts it. But many of his detractors, and even some of his supporters, think he can do just that.
No one has forgotten the drama last time: he didn’t manage to get a campaign organised in the days after the EU referendum. His campaign manager, Michael Gove, ended up deciding to run on the day Johnson was meant to launch his own campaign — and, in doing so, declared the candidate fundamentally unfit for office. But even if he hadn’t done so, Boris still might have failed. He had far fewer MPs on board than expected. Far from being too obsessed with his own leadership ambitions, Johnson, who as a boy told his family that he wanted to be ‘world king’, had not realised until too late that a victory for Leave would lead to an immediate Tory leadership race.
Which, for many MPs, raises the big question about Boris Johnson: he is a gifted communicator, a proven winner (at least in London mayoral elections), but does he have the judgment, guile and self-discipline needed for No. 10? His decision to go off and play cricket the day after David Cameron announced his resignation made it all too easy for Theresa May’s team to get ahead of him. But it also seemed to speak to Boris’s fundamental ambivalence: did he want the job or not? When his campaign team took him to mingle with MPs, he looked like he’d rather be having root-canal surgery. He didn’t even seem enthusiastic about writing his speech for the launch of his leadership bid, taking every opportunity to delay doing so. It all added to an amateur-hour feel that ripped the campaign apart.
Perhaps most telling was his decision to drop out on the morning of his launch. Yes, he had been taken aback by Gove flipping on him, and Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist, was advising him to walk away. But as one of his supporters said to me that morning, ‘He wouldn’t stoop to pick up the crown’. The feeling, for many MPs, was that if Boris Johnson had really wanted the job he would have stayed in the race.
Those close to Boris admit that he was naïve about how easily it would all fall into place — and deeply rattled by the ferocity of the backlash to Brexit’s victory. He had gone from being the capital’s Olympic mascot to having hundreds of people outside his home shouting abuse. Worse, many of his own friends and family were furious about the referendum result, and not shy about letting him know. Given Boris’s near-pathological desire to be liked, this shook him badly.