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10 September 2018

Boris Johnson could pull off becoming PM. But running the country would be another matter

The difficulties he would face governing a hostile party make him very much the Conservative Party equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn.

By James Ball

Boris Johnson has a problem.

Not the collapse of his marriage, nor that the front pages are full of pictures and questions around his relationship with women associated with his party, nor even that the remaining few inches of the political press are debating yet another tactless comment of his – this time “suicide vests” – though all of these are problems indeed.

Johnson’s problem is that he still wants to be Conservative leader, and still could be. That may sound great – to him at least – so far, but his problem is this: if he got the role, he would begin it holed, fatally, below the waterline.

Across the country, Johnson was once a politician whose popularity transcended party lines – many people who would otherwise vote Labour liked Johnson as a character, and some would even vote for him, as his two-term stint at London mayor showed.

But those days are done. Johnson no longer polls well outside his party, and is now a divisive figure within it: he sits mid-pack among other Conservative cabinet ministers, and thanks in part to his vocal support for Brexit is no longer warmly regarded by the Labour voters who once had time of day for him.

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Johnson is by no means the least popular politician in the country, but given he sits in a backbench role where he does not have to be the face of any unpopular decisions – in contrast to his cabinet colleagues – he has not managed to turn that into an upswell of popularity with the general public.

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Stunts he would once have got away with, such as his offensive comparison of women wearing the niqab to “letter boxes”, now draw disgust and condemnation, including from his own ranks. He is no longer the affable buffoon he used to be.

This might not immediately concern him, as there is one constituency with whom these kind of attacks land well: Conservative Party members. Johnson is telling the core Conservative membership what he thinks they want to hear: he won’t pander to political correctness, he will vocally support a “proper” Brexit (while offering no specifics on how it should be done), and he likes the idea of cutting taxes.

Johnson is staking everything on the Conservative Party being unwilling to pick another leader through a stitch-up among MPs, and courting the party’s hardline base in anticipation of a contest. It’s one he could win.

But his approach in doing so is alienating many of his own MPs. Alan Duncan, his former junior minister at the foreign office, said this weekend should mark the end of Johnson’s political ambitions – and threatened to work to ensure it does. Tom Tugendhat, the well-respected chair of the foreign affairs committee, launched a blistering attack against Johnson’s thoughtless “suicide vest” comments. Dozens of other MPs – to various degrees – openly show their contempt for Johnson.

Where does this leave the ambitious former foreign secretary? He certainly still has enough support to become a nominee for leader, should the Brexiteers succeed in unseating Theresa May (a prospect that is looking less likely in the short term). Johnson would need just ten of his fellow MPs to nominate him in order to be a contender in the leadership contest, which under Conservative party rules then leads to ballots among MPs until just two candidates remain – who are then voted on by members. While a divisive figure among his fellow MPs, there is a scarily plausible scenario in which he becomes strongest candidate for the party’s hard Brexit wing, and by doing so makes it through to final two. If he clears that bar, he likely has the support among the membership to win.

What he doesn’t have is the ability to govern. Should Johnson win the Conservative leadership and become prime minister, he would be a leader with little popularity in the country, and little support among his own MPs, kept in place by his party membership. And while neither man would like the comparison, that would make him very much the Conservative Party equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn.

Johnson’s position would be far more difficult than Corbyn’s, though. Corbyn’s leadership has shown it is difficult even to manage in opposition with a fractious and divided party, even with (in his case) rapturous support from party membership.

Johnson would not just have to manage the Conservative Party, though: if he became leader, he would have to steer a government eight years into office, and showing signs of exhaustion, through the process of Brexit, and do so with a far smaller and less enthusiastic membership behind him.

After years of manoeuvring, backstabbing, and self-serving deals, Boris Johnson might still be set to get what he’s always wanted: the keys to Number 10. If he does, he will soon wish he’d failed.