The Boris Show: what happens next?

A spot of travel and picking fights with Osborne will keep the London mayor amused once the Olympics are over.

Boris Johnson was hardly going to let the Olympics slip past him unexploited. As I noted in my column last week, the opportunity to use the games as a festival of self-promotion constitutes the Mayor of London's special reward for being the most electable Tory around. It is hard to imagine David Cameron basking in chants of "Dave! Dave! Dave!" at a vast Hyde Park rally. There is something about Johnson that zoinks -  so to speak - where other Conservatives don't.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has, I gather, been a source of some irritation to other politicians who are rarely sated with publicity. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has been raising hackles on Team Boris with his attempts to get in on the act. Olympics = sport = Jeremy, says the DCMS; London = Boris so back off, comes the City Hall rejoinder.

Meanwhile, provoking chatter about Boris's chances of succeeding Cameron was a poll for ConservativeHome naming him the activists' favourite. I stand by my column analysis that this is more a proxy expression of dismay and disappointment with the current leader than serious contemplation of Boris as Prime Minister. There are many obstacles to Johnson actually becoming leader (some of which I explore here; Steve Richards also picks up the theme in his Independent column today). 

Aside from the technical impediments - such as Boris not actually being an MP - there is the much more serious question of irresponsibility and pathological unseriousness. As one former Boris staffer said to me recently in a tone of weary incredulity aiming to kill off the idea of Prime Minister Johnson: "Just imagine him for a second in charge of defence."

Labour are certainly not taking the Johnson threat too seriously. The view at the top of the party is that Boris has reached his natural political altitude. One senior shadow cabinet minister told me at the time of the London mayoral election that Boris's success was an expression of the executive weakness of the post he was applying for. Voters could be relaxed about hiring a semi-comic figurehead because they fully understood that doing so had few real consequences. That would not be true in a general election where a crucial element in deciding how people vote (this shadow cabinet minister said) is "the fear factor" - what happens if this mildly ridiculous person actually wins?

Meanwhile, Boris is clearly determined to raise his candidacy beyond the novelty level. That aspiration is hardly helped by his hope, expressed to aides (as I revealed last week), of overseeing the city on a part time basis after the Olympics. But presumably he will use his free time to burnish his credentials as a serious national figure - and even an international one - capable of holding more august office. One way City Hall folk expect Boris to liven up  his job once the Olympic excitement has worn off is more foreign travel. It was felt in the first term that too much gallivanting around the globe as an "ambassador for London" would not have been received very well. One too many junkets and it might have looked as if Boris was neglecting his manor. But in the wake of the games, and the higher profile that has afforded the mayor, Boris now apparently feels liberated to go out and about drumming up investment from foreign companies and businesses. The idea is that the Magnetic Mayor's Roadshow will attract capital to the capital. He can then turn to the nation with a pitch along the lines: "Behold! London growing and replete with jobs. Witness how it has outperformed the rest of the country."

Another pursuit to pass the time productively will be picking fights with the Chancellor over funding for the capital. London as a region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and Boris intends to haggle noisily to secure, as he sees it, a bigger share of his constituents' cash. That also creates ample opportunities for the sport described by one source as "jabbing George in the ribs". It is only once the Olympics are gone that the games really begin.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has been a source of some irritation to other politicians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle