Donald Trump's endorsement underlines that there is no way back for Boris Johnson

Tory MPs hope that a Johnson candidacy means the nation-spanning popularity of the Johnson of 2012. It actually means the polarising candidacy of the Johnson of 2017. 

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With friends like these, who needs enemies? Boris Johnson has secured the endorsement of Donald Trump in the Conservative leadership election.

In the contest that Johnson is currently running in, it will do him no harm. It underscores his identity as the truest guarantor of Brexit and thereby, in the minds of Tory MPs who are nervous about their election prospects thanks to the rise of the Brexit party, the best bet for taking the air out of Nigel Farage’s balloon.

But it underlines the difficulty he will face in the general election. The former foreign secretary retains an instinctive understanding of where British public opinion actually is, which is why he took care as Mayor of London and indeed on the campaign trail for Vote Leave to take potshots at Trump. Trump remains a deeply unpopular figure in the United Kingdom and there is a deeply engrained strain of anti-American sentiment in the British electorate across the left-right spectrum.

But just because you still understand how to do something, doesn’t mean that you retain the ability to do it. The endorsement of Trump will do Johnson no harm at all in the country as a whole, because socially liberal voters who are politically motivated enough to have their minds about a British politician changed by Donald Trump already dislike him.  

It underlines, however, that the hope retained by some of Johnson’s supporters, that he can leverage the support of the pro-Leave right to win the Tory leadership election and then turn his energies towards reminding social liberals, Remainers and people in big cities why they once liked him is likely to be unfufilled.

The Trump endorsement will “cut through”, and it speaks to the doubts that many voters have about him: that he is economical with the truth, aligned with people they greatly dislike, and that he would be incapable of performing the job of Prime Minister. It is difficult for him to pivot away from Trump without confirming at least one of the three.

Whether he wants to be or not, Johnson has gone from being the candidate who can reach into every part of England and Wales to one that can speak only to half of it. It is a reminder that the choice that the Conservatives are making if they pick Boris Johnson is not to put the election winner of 2012 at their head, but to refight the 2017 election with a better campaigner and a more divisive Brexit offer, in the hope that they will get a more favourable result.

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.