Well, that was much ado about nothing: Boris Johnson just gave a speech that, as far as the state of play at the top of the Conservative Party goes, changes nothing. The former foreign secretary doesn’t like Theresa May’s Brexit proposals, and took a swipe at two members of the cabinet…but has no plan to force May out and as such it will be her Brexit proposals, or something like them, that ultimately come to the House of Commons later this year.
But his speech was a reminder of his considerable political strengths. He had Tory activists eating out of his hand after a performance that was, from a technical perspective, one of his best. The shifts from quasi-affable joker to serious statesman pulled off with more grace than he has sometimes managed. If he makes to the final round of the Conservative Party leadership election he will surely crush any of his rivals.
The problem for Johnson is that he is becoming a politician who is incredibly well designed to win the votes of paid-up members of the Conservative Party and is poorly positioned to win votes of anybody else.
As far as the Tory leadership election goes, he has to get through the parliamentary party first, and the reality is that among a large number of Conservative MPs, antipathy to Johnson is now high enough that hearing about MPs’ personal dislike of him feels almost as commonplace as talking about the weather.
That’s not to say that MPs will succeed in their bid to shut Johnson out of the final round, but it is to say that Johnson is very much a man who has lost control of his own political destiny. If enough pro-Leave candidates detonate, if the other candidates are not well organised enough to shunt him out, if individual MPs fail to keep Johnson off the ballot, then yes, he’ll win. But those are all big ifs and none of them are within his power to influence or change.
Should he overcome those hurdles then it is hard to see how anyone else could defeat him but then he has to keep the Conservative Party in office at the next election, and he has gone from being the best-placed Tory to do that to the worst. Before Brexit he was generally popular with most voters. Now he is extremely popular with the majority of Leave voters and extremely unpopular with the majority of Remain voters. But the problem is that the Conservative Party has already won over the majority of Leave voters. Polling consistently shows that a Johnson leadership would narrow the lead that the Conservatives enjoy as far as the question of who makes the best prime minister goes.
And his policy agenda is badly chosen to win over voters, too. He backs a restoration of the old powers of stop-and-search; popular with Leave voters and with Conservative party members, but repellent to affluent ethnic minorities and socially liberal voters, with whom David Cameron did better than Theresa May and who could represent one route back to majority Tory government. But he also favours tax cuts and an embrace of free market capitalism, which closes off the other route back, which is to make further inroads into the Leave vote.
Johnson used to have the advantage that he was well-designed to win over Tory activists and British voters, which gave him an offer to Conservative MPs with doubts about his character and ability to do the job. Now he is still in a strong position with activists but can no longer credibly pitch himself to Conservatives in marginal seats as the instrument of their salvation. And even should he overcome that obstacle, the central problem that he is now the candidate least suited to holding onto power will remain unchanged.