Boris Johnson’s appeal to Conservative MPs is based on two fronts: electability and inevitability.
On the first front, the former mayor of London argues that he is a proven winner who has what it takes to turn the party’s fortune around, to put Nigel Farage out of business and then to see off Jeremy Corbyn. That’s what one MP describes as the “soft sell”, often but not always made after a visit to their constituency, where the Johnson magic can be observed at close quarters.
The second front is the hard sell: the former foreign secretary’s march to Downing Street cannot be stopped, and MPs are invited to consider how unpleasant they might find life on the wrong side of a vengeful prime minister. That approach is usually made by one of Johnson’s lieutenants, and MPs who have experienced it have compared it to everything from a visit from the bailiffs to a close encounter with the Mafia.
The case for inevitability looks watertight. It’s not just that Johnson is the preferred candidate of the party’s activist base, and has been for a prolonged period. More importantly, none of the candidates who have challenged him for the leadership has seemed capable of preventing him from becoming party leader and thus prime minister. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid have circled him cautiously, their punches pulled in order to avoid being exiled after Johnson’s victory. After his betrayal of Johnson in 2016, Michael Gove is too distrusted by both Conservative activists and MPs to be an effective advocate for the case against the former London mayor. It’s a measure of how suspicious Tory MPs have become of Gove’s motives that during the contest I have heard them speculate that he is secretly orchestrating the campaigns of Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart in a bid eventually to seize the leadership for himself.
Raab’s candidacy could have, in theory, presented the most dangerous challenge to Johnson. Like Johnson, Raab resigned from the cabinet in protest against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and his previous career bringing war criminals to trial and his libertarian streak should have given him the ability to fight a campaign that appealed to MPs beyond the party’s Brexit ultras. But his campaign never managed to strike a note beyond shrill Brexitism, which condemned him to a humiliating early exit.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, spoke frankly and aggressively about Johnson’s shortcomings, only to endorse him after pulling out of the contest. That dismayed his supporters and, more troublingly for Hancock’s long-term political future, he failed to persuade a majority of them to follow him in backing Johnson.
Rory Stewart’s frankness and willingness to attack the frontrunner directly won him the acclaim of much of the left and liberal press and, more importantly, the support of a group in the parliamentary party prepared to ignore the implicit threat of revenge under a Johnson premiership. But the messy, chaotic format of the BBC’s television debate on 18 June, the last chance for the chasing pack to change the tone of the race, meant that neither Stewart, nor the rest of Johnson’s rivals, had a real opportunity to attack the frontrunner and transform the contest. That missed opportunity represented the final end of any serious hope that Johnson might be defeated.
So Johnson’s hard sell that he is bound to win and MPs would be wise to fall in line is near-unimpeachable. But that so many MPs are willing not only to defy the hard sell but in some cases to endorse the full-on resistance of Stewart is a sign that the other pillar of Johnson’s appeal to Conservative MPs – his electability – may be tested sooner rather than later.
The worrying news for Tory MPs is that the argument that Johnson is electable is a lot harder to sustain than the one that he is inevitable. The Conservative Party has two major problems: the votes it is losing to the Brexit Party all over the country, and the votes it is losing to the Liberal Democrats, largely in the south-west and in London.
The long-term solution is easy enough: first deliver Brexit, then spend the time until the next election reassuring Remain voters that their worst fears have not come true. The problem is that Brexit cannot be delivered by this parliament – which means a general election.
If the polls are right, Johnson is the candidate who most effectively reverses the flow of defections from the Conservatives to Nigel Farage’s new party. But the cost of that is that he increases the rate of movement from the Conservative column to the Liberal Democrat one. And while the Brexit Party has no particular geographic areas of strength and a Nigel Farage-led party has never won a seat from the Tories without the aid of a defector, the Liberal Democrats’ new Conservative converts are well-placed to win them seats under first-past-the-post.
Far from being a certain winner, Johnson’s leadership is a gamble on a grand scale: Tory MPs are betting that the votes he will gain from the Brexit Party are on a sufficient scale to make up for those he will lose to the resurgent Liberal Democrats.
Some of them know full well the scale of the risk they are taking. They believe that the referendum result has changed the nature of the Conservative electoral coalition and that the party’s only hope is to become unequivocally the party of Brexit. They know that they are gambling but, when the dust settles, will the Tories have gained enough in Grimsby and Ashfield to make up for what they lose in Putney and Cheltenham?
The risk, of course, is that the Johnson-led Conservatives end up losing Putney but fail to win Grimsby. There are no risk-free options: Johnson’s electability could yet imperil his inevitability.
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news