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2 October 2017

Why Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game

Irritation is growing at the Foreign Secretary's need to be the centre of attention.

By Stephen Bush

Welcome to the latest episode of Everybody Tolerates Boris Johnson, or Conservative party conference as it is more commonly known.

Theresa May kicked off the event with an interview with Andrew Marr in which she refused to comment on whether or not the Foreign Secretary was unsackable. Of course, she’s already confirmed that de facto by not sacking him after his 4,200-word article on Brexit in the Telegraph. But it’s the Sun that Johnson is making waves in this week, with a series of further demands on the PM, laying out four further red lines over Brexit on Saturday and calling for Dfid to be folded back into the Foreign Office today.

Tune in next week, when Johnson will be discussing what colour May should paint Downing Street’s wallpaper in the Express.

Among ministers and MPs, irritation is growing at the Foreign Secretary’s need to be the centre of attention and the distraction it creates from their efforts to get back on the front foot. “What a time to be squabbling!” squeals the Mail on their splash. But it seems to be working for Johnson as far as his real target goes: he’s back up to top spot in the latest ConservativeHome Tory leader survey. A majority of his colleagues may want him gone, but as long as he can pull in enough votes to finish second in the leadership race it looks as if he’ll be difficult to beat.

But outside of the confines of the conference centre, on this, it looks as if Conservative MPs are more attuned to the public than their grassroots. The latest Polling London survey shows a remarkable fall-off in Johnson’s standing in the capital. Just over a year ago, he left office as mayor with a net approval rating of +20 per cent among Londoners. Now it has dwindled to the point where he is seen as the least effective of all three of London’s mayors.

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In London the issue of Brexit is particularly acute, of course, but it’s not just the capital where turning off social liberals and affluent ethnic minorities is losing Tory seats. An Opinium survey for the Social Market Foundation shows that he has lost his lustre across the country.

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Johnson is playing a great game if the question is leveraging enough support from the Tory right to make the run-off among members. But if the question is how he can not only become but remain prime minister, not so much.