It is a mark of just how profoundly the priorities of Conservative MPs have changed since their last leadership election that Gavin Williamson, who chaired Theresa May’s successful 2016 campaign with the intent of stopping Boris Johnson, has emerged as one of the former foreign secretary’s most important lieutenants this time around.
As enforcer-in-chief to both May and David Cameron, Williamson has had more cause than most to distrust and dislike the Tory frontrunner. That not only he but dozens of Conservative MPs, who until this month would have blanched at the prospect of a Johnson leadership, are now on board is a powerful testament to the candidate’s momentum.
Yet the fact that Johnson’s commanding levels of support are so striking — surprising, even — reflects a contradictory truth that was once received wisdom in Westminster. Much like the consciously unclubbable prime minister he is expected to succeed, Johnson has never had much of a parliamentary following to speak of.
May made a virtue of her aloofness and isolation. “I know I’m not a showy politician,” she said at the launch of her own leadership bid three years ago. “I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
Those lines were aimed squarely at Johnson. But the irony is that the point they make about personal relationships applies just as much to him. Indeed, part of the reason Johnson’s last leadership bid failed is that he had not done the gruelling but necessary job of schmoozing members of the 2015 and 2010 intake of Conservative MPs.
Despite his public reputation for bluff bonhomie, Johnson is a much shyer character in private. Politics, as well as personality, limited his appeal to colleagues. His gaffe-ridden stint at the Foreign Office confirmed existing misgivings, as did his embrace of the hardest possible Brexit. Yet despite it all, Johnson has been able to rely on the support of a small but fiercely loyal circle of true believers throughout.
Chief among Johnson’s disciples is Conor Burns MP, his parliamentary Man Friday and consigliere. A personal friend of Margaret Thatcher, Burns served as Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary during his time as foreign secretary and is never far from his side. When Johnson addressed the DUP’s conference last November, the Bournemouth West MP joined him for the trip. He also helped spread the gospel on campaign visits to marginal constituencies (tellingly, Johnson invites himself, with Burns making the pitch for his leadership to MPs).
As well as Burns, there are the Tory ministers who have stuck fast to Johnson despite his travails. They are Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister; Ben Wallace, the security minister; Andrew Stephenson, the business minister; and Nigel Adams, who resigned as a Wales Office minister and whip over Theresa May’s decision to enter Brexit talks with Labour in April. All are men, and all apart from Wallace — first elected in 2005 — won their seats from Labour in 2010.
James Wharton, Berry’s predecessor as Northern Powerhouse minister, was among their number until his defenestration from the Commons at the 2017 general election. He has since returned to the fray as Johnson’s chief of staff — a reflection of the strength of the personal loyalty felt by his inner circle. The parliamentary side of Johnson’s operation is led by Williamson, with Grant Shapps, the former Conservative chairman, crunching the numbers.
Outside of Johnson’s kitchen cabinet but nonetheless close to him are Kit Malthouse, the housing minister, and James Cleverly, the junior Brexit minister. Both served under Johnson at City Hall (the former as deputy mayor for policing, the latter as youth ambassador) and both abandoned their own leadership bids when the scale of his lead became clear. The same is true of Johnny Mercer, the outspoken and often volatile backbencher, who sacrificed his own leadership ambitions to support Johnson in parliament and — more frequently — on the airwaves.
But the problem for Johnson is that the sum of his allies’ parts doesn’t amount to a cabinet, or anything like it. But ministers who would not ordinarily ally themselves with Johnson also see opportunity in his premiership. Take James Brokenshire. The housing secretary is one of only two genuine Mayites in the cabinet, if not the entire Conservative parliamentary party. Politically and personally loyal to the prime minister, he was among the doughtiest champions of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. In ordinary times, Brokenshire would stay as far away from Johnson as possible. Instead, he has joined the club. Friends suggest that, as a “details man”, he could serve as a Johnson administration’s David Lidington (the de facto deputy prime minister).
The frontrunner’s other cabinet backers include Liz Truss, the hawkish chief secretary to the Treasury; Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary; Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary (whose special adviser Richard Holden has taken a leave of absence to help run Johnson’s campaign); Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary; and Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General.
But together, none of Johnson’s backers can truly be said to form a coherent political movement with a distinct ideology. The loyalty of the hard core of Johnsonites is primarily personal. For his new supporters, it is heavily conditional.
Johnson’s real challenge, then, will be retaining his hold on the parliamentary party if elected. Despite his domination of the leadership, that hold is weaker than it appears.
Johnson’s coalition, like May’s in 2016, spans the entire ideological breadth of the Conservative Party: from Steve Baker on the Eurosceptic right to Remainers such as Robert Buckland. There is nothing to suggest that Johnson can succeed where May failed in preventing its fragmentation. And like his predecessor, he may soon find himself politically and personally isolated.
This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series.