You don’t need to be Alan Turing to decode Philip Hammond’s remarkable interview with the Mail this morning, in which he declares Boris Johnson will never be prime minister, mocks his accent, says he doesn’t have the grip to run a big department let alone the government, and says his only political achievement is London’s cycle hire scheme. (Which is a little unfair: everyone who knows anything about transport policy knows that the cycle hire scheme was the last achievement of Ken Livingstone.)
Being savaged by Hammond, comfortably the least popular cabinet minister among Conservative activists, might do Johnson no end of good with the grassroots. But it’s a useful illustration of his real problem, which is that it is difficult to see how he will get that far into a leadership contest.
To reiterate: anyone can run for the Tory leadership (and, because of the general expectation that the new leader will clear out the cabinet, almost everyone will, in an attempt to extend their own time in the political spotlight through a show of strength) but only the candidates who finish first and second among the parliamentary party will actually go to the contest proper.
That means that Johnson’s opponents in the parliamentary party – who are many – can engineer a situation in which he’s shunted out of contention unless he can harness enough support to make that mathematically impossible: and no one believes that to be the case. His problem isn’t just Brexit, but also the large number of MPs who share his views, recognise his political talents, but wanted him to demonstrate that he could run a government department, something he demonstrably failed to do at the Foreign Office. (That he ultimately resigned over the direction of Brexit, something that should have been clear to him after the December agreement, only aggravates that problem.)
So the big question is not “will Boris Johnson be prime minister?” a question to which the answer is “only if a great number of more plausible candidates are astonishingly unlucky and/or tactically inept”, but who benefits from his unpopularity among MPs. Will it be another Leaver, like Penny Mordaunt or Michael Gove? Or will it, after everything, be a Remainer-on-Remainer final round between Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt? And what will whoever emerges as Theresa May’s successor do about the problem of Boris Johnson, a man whose profile means that he is a destabilising and damaging presence outside the tent but whose lack of grip, effort and application mean he can’t really be given a job inside it either?