That Boris Johnson – who once styled himself as a liberal Conservative, particularly on immigration – is in regular contact with Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trump and an avowed critic of immigration, tells us a lot about both the former mayor and the state of Tory party politics.
Most political relationships are transactional, but those involving Johnson are more so than most. He has never had much of a parliamentary following, partly because he is a poor Commons performer and partly because he has never been particularly skilled or committed to cultivating one. Instead, he had an offer: that he was the Conservative who could succeed where others failed. His two wins in London in 2008 and 2012 were in sharp contrast to David Cameron’s failure to win a majority in 2010.
Then in 2015, two things happened: the first was that David Cameron won a majority, and the second was that Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. Both these events meant that as far as most Tory MPs were concerned, Johnson’s unique selling point no longer existed. Any Conservative who could walk in a straight line would surely easily defeat Corbyn at the 2020 election. (It was a more innocent time.)
Lots of people saw Johnson’s decision to come out in support of a Leave vote in 2016 in part as a result of that: he needed a new selling point and the general consensus was that, whatever the result, only someone who had campaigned for a Leave vote would be able to replace Cameron as Conservative leader. (Again, it was a more innocent time.)
But as it happened, the 2016 referendum was an ideological triumph but a political disaster for Johnson: it wiped out his high favourability ratings with social liberals, graduates, Liberal Democrats and soft Labour voters, the people on which his mayoral wins were based and which his appeal to was a central selling point of his “different type of Tory” branding. His leadership bid blew up when Michael Gove opted to run against him, deciding that he couldn’t honestly say that Johnson was up to the job of being prime minister.
Johnson’s tenure at the Foreign Office did little to disprove the idea that Gove was correct (one of the odd bits of cognitive dissonance you encounter a lot at Westminster is among Conservative MPs who believe that Johnson’s conduct as foreign secretary proved that he would be a poor prime minister but still believe that Gove was wrong to move against him).
But thanks to the twists and turns of the Brexit process, Johnson’s old USP of being the Conservative who can reach into parts of the electorate that others cannot is back. He is the only high-profile popular Conservative politician whom voters associate with a Leave vote, and crucially, is also the only one that Leave voters recognise and trust. (Michael Gove is widely recognised by voters, but not liked, while Jacob Rees-Mogg’s profile is still low amongst ordinary people.)
As I say in my column this week, that means he is the best-placed candidate to sell any Brexit deal and to prevent or co-opt any noises from the party’s right. But it’s a curious journey: Johnson’s argument to Conservative MPs – ignore my flaws, look at the voters I can reach that you can’t – remains unchanged. It’s just the voters in question are radically different. He used to be the candidate who could win over Londoners and social liberals: now he’s the candidate who speaks with Steve Bannon and can retain Ukip voters. All that remains unchanged is the opportunism.