Boris Johnson might not be the next Tory leader – but his faction is in the ascendant

Ruth Davidson is popular among the grassroots, but as she is not an MP she can't stand.

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Nineteenth-century diplomats described the détente between the two victors of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia and Britain, as “the equilibrium of the elephant and the whale”. The Prussian elephant was unbeatable on land but adrift at sea. The British whale was hegemonic in the oceans but impotent on the ground. So the two sides circled one other, each hoping that some innovation, or event, would tilt the balance decisively in their favour.

A similarly uneasy truce currently prevails between the Prime Minister and her Foreign Secretary. As Conservatives gathered for their party conference in Manchester, much of the commentary focused on Boris Johnson’s complaints about Brexit and his quibbles over the structure of Whitehall. But that is missing the point. It is more telling that the Foreign Secretary tipped off broadcasters about the time of his arrival in the city, and rearranged his schedule to make the news bulletins. His objective is to become Conservative leader; the policy is merely the instrument.

However, one of his warbles is worth discussing because of what it reveals about his political style: his attempts to bring the Department for International Development back under the auspices of the Foreign Office. Johnson succeeded as London mayor because of his eye for a talented underling. Several of them are now MPs and one of them, James Cleverly, is regularly spoken of as a future Tory leader in his own right. Increasing the number of ministers in his own orbit may allow him to repeat the trick as a cabinet minister. Asserting the Foreign Office’s dominance is also a signal to the Tory faithful that a Johnson government might prune the aid budget without provoking a fight with development organisations or pro-aid Conservative MPs.

These antics have put Johnson back at the top of YouGov’s popularity ratings among Tory members. That makes him unsackable. After flirting with disloyalty for weeks, he gave a conference speech that was spotlessly on-message, combining the usual mixture of arcane words, bad jokes and uplifting platitudes, designed to make his activist audience feel good about themselves.

Yet Johnson’s difficulty is that most Conservative MPs regard him in much the same way as the average African farmer regards an actual elephant: gallumphingly destructive but protected by a fearsomely good PR strategy. He doesn’t have the parliamentary base to dislodge the Prime Minister, but she doesn’t have the strength in the country to fire him either. So they circle one another, each hoping that something will beach the whale or tip the elephant into the sea.

Not everyone at the top of the party is as restrained as the Prime Minister. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, spent much of the conference needling the Foreign Secretary. Without the 12 new seats that the Conservatives won in Scotland, they would have headed to Manchester as an opposition party, and she knows it. The Scottish campaign was the work of Davidson, from its backroom staff – she preferred to enlist James Kanagasooriam of Populus rather than rely on Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby, who crunched the numbers in England and Wales – to its central themes. She is determined to get the credit.

The 2017 campaign has cemented her position as de facto leader of the Conservatives’ liberal wing, although in truth that is a role she has occupied since David Cameron left the political stage. Several aid charities believe her personal intervention ensured that May decided to maintain Cameron’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development. Davidson’s success in the 2016 Holyrood elections meant that even when May’s stock was high, the Scottish Tory leader had the stature to sound a more sceptical note on Brexit and a warmer one on immigration.

Now that the Prime Minister is becalmed, Davidson and other centrists are empowered to entertain heresies. Among them is the MP George Freeman, one of the party’s biggest brains, who has spent the week plainly laying out the extent of the Tories’ unpopularity among voters under 50. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who offended her oldest allies with a virulently anti-immigration speech at last year’s conference, neglected this time even to mention the Prime Minister’s pet project, the net migration target.

Only MPs can run for Tory leader, so Davidson is barred. Liberal Tories are therefore rallying around Rudd. In an earlier incarnation, “champion of the centre ground” is a role Johnson might have filled himself, but his participation in the EU referendum campaign makes that impossible. He now hopes to emerge as the candidate of the party’s pro-Leave ultras, hence his loud trumpeting about Brexit. But there are equally talented and more reliable options available to that wing of the party, such as David Davis.

Because both Davidson and Johnson are such lively speakers (and because of their personal animosity), it’s tempting to see the next Tory leadership race as a battle between them. When asked to pick from a long list of names, 23 per cent of party members chose Johnson, followed by 19 per cent for Davidson. Yet as things stand, they will not be able to pick the Scottish politician, and Johnson’s fellow MPs might well conspire to keep him out of the final two (and thus off the ballot that goes to members).

Instead, the most significant finding from YouGov’s polling is this: on any calculation, the combined support for all the pro-migration, centrist Conservatives struggles to exceed a third of the party membership.

Boris Johnson might not be the future of the Conservative Party. But when the equilibrium between the elephant and the whale breaks down, the composition of the membership strongly suggests that someone like him will be. 

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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.

This article appears in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer