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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:33pm

Can Boris Johnson’s march to the Tory leadership be interrupted?

By Stephen Bush

And then there were ten: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, Rory Stewart, Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper and Esther McVey all got the eight nominations required to go through to the first stage of the contest proper. This is the first ballot on Thursday, where every candidate who receives 16 votes or fewer will be eliminated, or, if every candidate can clear that hurdle, the candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated.

Ballots will continue until there are just two candidates left, at which point it will then be put to a deciding vote of all the Conservative Party members in the country.

But of course, not all ten candidates are created equal: Johnson, Hunt, Gove, and Raab all started this campaign with serious hopes of winning the contest. Johnson, the runaway favourite, is obviously having the best run out of this quintet, while Raab, who looks to have faded badly and has severely damaged his standing with many Conservative MPs, has had the worst. One story of this contest has been the collapse of any serious Stop Johnson effort – but the other big story is that there is a serious Stop Raab campaign. 

The other five candidates are essentially having awareness-raising campaigns. Their relative levels of success are partly down to their own skills but also down to the successes or failures of the candidates in the upper five. Rory Stewart has had the opportunity to look fresh, principled and engaging because the moderate Conservative campaigns in the leadership race have largely failed to sound fresh, principled and engaging. Matt Hancock has established himself as the candidate with ideas because the top five have so few. Andrea Leadsom looks like a spare part because her path to viability involved Johnson and Raab collapsing, and only Raab has obliged. Mark Harper, in getting onto the ballot has arguably already exceeded expectations and got what he came for out of this contest. The only out-and-out failure has been McVey, who has changed her position from a bridge-building rehire for any new Conservative leader to the sectional candidate of people who want a no deal Brexit and are either tolerant of or active supporters of homophobia.

Is there any prospect of Johnson’s march to the top being interrupted? Not if the chasing pack continue as they are. Hunt formally launched his campaign with a veiled dig at his predecessor as foreign secretary, saying that these are serious times calling for a serious leader. Amber Rudd, one of two big-name endorsements that Hunt secured yesterday (the other being Penny Mordaunt), also returned to that theme in her Times article explaining why she’s backing Hunt. Gove also referenced Johnson’s lack of seriousness and ability to do the job.

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The problem for Johnson’s challengers is that while veiled swipes at Johnson and coded references to his private life might get people talking, literally no one backing Johnson’s candidacy is doing so because they think he is a serious figure. (No one in parliament has taken enough mind-altering drugs for that.) They’re doing it because they think he is a natural-born winner who can get the party out of its hole and save their seats.

It’s true, if the polls are to be believed that a Johnson candidacy would put the Brexit Party “back in its box”, to use Johnson’s own phrase. But those same polls show that a Johnson candidacy would also put put the Liberal Democrats and the SNP on steroids.

Johnson’s growing list of endorsements is partly because of the canny campaign he is running, and partly because while he has lost his ability to appeal to all parts of the country, he hasn’t lost the political instincts that allowed him to do so.

But it’s also because none of his rivals have yet taken on the real argument at the heart of his campaign: and unless they can find a way to do so, and do so soon, they may well go down in history as the last politicians to be defeated by Johnson in an electoral contest.