Conservative MPs and Labour activists agree on Boris Johnson. They're both wrong

The former Mayor's popularity is not what it once was and the Conservatives would be better off with almost anyone else. 

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Conservative MPs and LabourList readers don’t agree on much, but they agree on Boris Johnson.

The agreement is deeper than you might think: a plurality of LabourList readers – 45 per cent – believe that Johnson is the candidate that Labour should most fear and a majority – 72 per cent – think that he is the least-suited to the job of running the country.

A similar dynamic is at work in the parliamentary Conservative party, where a sizable chunk of MPs believe that Johnson is a winner but carry grave reservations about his ability to be Prime Minister. Those fears range from a belief he would be lazy and ineffective to people who think he is not a fit and proper person. One Conservative MP, who is nearer the beginning of their career than the end, told me they would “retire” rather than serve in a Johnson-led government.

Until relatively recently, it was a well-sourced commonplace wisdom at Westminster that the doubts that Conservative MPs have about Johnson’s fitness to hold office would mean that he would never gain the support necessary to become the party’s leader. Two things have changed: the first is that Johnson’s operation has sharpened up, and he has done a good job cultivating support among the newer intakes of MPs, who are more likely to sit for marginal seats (one MP in a Labour target seat, who has privately criticised Johnson in the past, joked that they were thinking of “lying back and thinking of my majority”). The second, of course, is that the Conservative party’s electoral position has got considerably worse.

A growing number of Tory MPs, who, like LabourList readers, think that Johnson is the opponent Jeremy Corbyn would least like to face but the least qualified to occupy Downing Street, are willing to compromise over Johnson in order to prevent a Corbyn-led government.

But are they right? All of the evidence suggests that picking Johnson because he is a proven winner is a bit like making a 300-mile-round trip because you had a great dinner somewhere 20 years ago: a great deal has changed since then, and you may well find that your journey ends in disappointment. It misunderstands both the nature of Johnson’s standing both then and now, the challenge facing the Conservative party and their easiest path to victory.

Let’s start with Johnson’s standing now. When Johnson was re-elected as Mayor of London in 2012, he was the most popular politician in the country, with an approval rating of 25 per cent in the country as a whole, and 58 per cent in London. It is now minus 51 per cent in London and minus 35 per cent in the country as a whole. Johnson used to be a politician beloved by most voters – now he is sharply polarising. Anyone voting for Johnson hoping for the Johnson of 2012, or even of May 2016 when he stood down as Mayor, is going to get a very nasty shock. Even at the height of his popularity, people weren’t sold that Johnson had it in him to step up and be Prime Minister. They liked him, but they weren’t sure he should be allowed to run the country. Now they dislike him, and also aren’t sure if he should be allowed to run the country.

Johnson is also almost laboratory-designed to maximize Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of entering Downing Street. Labour’s big hurdle at the next election is that they, too, have a leader who is sharply polarising and that a large chunk of people who voted Labour in 2017 – and indeed of those saying they will vote Labour now – pick someone else, be it Theresa May or “Don’t Know”, when asked to identify their preferred Prime Minister.

Labour’s big task between now and the next election is to turn that around – their big hope, of course, is the transformation in Corbyn’s ratings they managed during the last election campaign. The Conservatives’ big hope is that, in an election in which people know there is a serious chance – as I’ve written before, Corbyn really ought to be seen as the heavy favourite at the next election – of Corbyn as PM, they will be less willing to vote for him than they were in the 2017 election, when most people thought that Theresa May was bound to be re-elected.

While it rightly alarms Conservative MPs in marginal seats that “hope that, at the death, voters will not put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street” is not only their party’s Plan A but plans B through to Z as well, it’s not a bad back-up plan. Elections around the world consistently show that no matter how bad the headline polls may be, if you retain a large lead on leadership, you always have a chance to pull off an upset.

As a result, everything the Tories do, from a political standpoint, should be designed around reinforcing and emphasising the doubts people have about Jeremy Corbyn. Picking Boris Johnson, who, even at the height of his popularity people also doubted could be Prime Minister, blunts that major advantage.

In addition, the easiest direct route to staying in office – if we assume that the Conservatives want a better Plan A than "just grit your teeth and hope that shouting ‘It’s Corbyn!’ will pull you through" – is not to win over any more Labour voters directly, but to end, or at least lessen, the two-party polarisation at the last election.

Labour has a good tactic for this, and if the polls at a Westminster level are to be believed, it is working: they are way down on votes from their 2017 coalition, with Labour voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats, to the SNP, to Plaid Cymru, to the Greens, to Change UK and to the Brexit party, but they are on course to finish well up on seats, the only metric that matters in our appalling electoral system. Why? Because the Conservative party, while only really losing votes to the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats, is losing more votes and likely doing so in places it cannot afford to do so.

What the Conservatives badly need is a leader who will encourage what you might call “differential rebellion”: who will revolt fewer Conservative voters but crucially will not annoy 2017 Labour voters so much they feel unable to vote with their hearts and back Green, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Change UK, Plaid Cymru or what have you instead.

The Conservatives would be better off with quite literally anyone they have running for the top job as they are all less well-known: less popular, but crucially, also less unpopular.

Jeremy Corbyn’s good fortune is that the Conservative Party is unlikely to look beyond the obvious option.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.