Boris Johnson has bulldozed his Tory leadership hopes

The jokes at the Foreign Secretary's expense over Heathrow reflect an uncomfortable truth for him: he commands no loyalty from Tory MPs. 

NS

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Conservative MPs have been put under a three-line whip to back Heathrow expansion in tonight’s vote, which Boris Johnson will miss on account of a fortuitously-timed trip to Afghanistan. One could be forgiven for thinking the Tories have also been whipped to mock the Foreign Secretary.

Greg Hands, who last week resigned as a minister to make good on his manifesto promise to vote against a third runway, turning the spotlight squarely onto Johnson and his broken promise to do the same, has led the charge. “Great to arrive back in the UK at Luton Airport in time for the match today and to vote against #Heathrow expansion tomorrow," he tweeted yesterday. “I wouldn't want to be abroad for either of those. #commitments”

Others have piled in. Justine Greening, whose Putney constituency is also under the airport's flightpath, offered more piquant criticism of the Foreign Secretary this morning, as did Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee, who mockingly evoked Johnson's promise to “lie down in front of the bulldozer”  when ground broke on the construction of the third runway. 

Great you’re back Greg! I wouldn’t want any long term MP campaigners against #Heathrow expansion to miss their chance to represent their community. #commitment #bulldozer https://t.co/FP5h4lqrAg

— Justine Greening (@JustineGreening) June 25, 2018

Tom Tugendhat, the ambitious chair of the foreign affairs select committee - a role that sees him clash regularly with Johnson - was more oblique but nonetheless cutting for it. 

Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, joked on this afternoon's Daily Politics that Johnson could miss the vote to travel to China or India to “buy a cheaper bulldozer”. Most of the Conservative parliamentary party is having a laugh at Johnson's expense. 

So what, one might think - surely the Foreign Secretary of all people is game for a laugh at his own expense? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Johnson's career knows answer to that is no, and even if it wasn't, the enthusiasm with which his colleagues are lining up to give him a shoeing bodes terribly for what's left of his ambition to become leader. 

Conservative leadership contests are influenced by MPs in a way unlike any other party: they are both gatekeepers and winnowers of the field. That so many of them are enthusiastically taking up the opportunity for a free hit on Johnson reflects just how far his stock has fallen since the 2016 leadership election.

Then, let's not forget, he pulled out of a leadership race in which he was the notional frontrunner because he could neither convince his campaign manager he was the right man for the job nor count on the support of enough colleagues to reach the final two - the point at which, according to the then popular logic, his purported popularity among the grassroots would have delivered him a landslide victory. 

Now the outlook is even less auspicious. While the 2016 contest was inititally an exercise in stopping Johnson, now it is difficult to see him managing to start. His ministerial career, defined by embarrassment on the international stage and empty threats of resignation at home, has lost him friends and alienated people. He is a rare example of a politician diminished by high office.

His self-serving embrace of the hardest of Brexits has alienated the silent majority of MPs in favour of something altogether softer. Despite it, he has been outflanked by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, along with Michael Gove, regularly outpoll him among the Tory grassroots once considered Johnson's most fertile territory in a leadership race.

As today's mockery shows, it is unlikely that he would be one of their choices anyway. Supporters of Johnson used to cite his “Heinenken” ability to reach the parts of the electorate that no other Tory leader could. Now he alienates colleagues like no other candidate for the job could. Beyond a handful of personal loyalists, he has no real constituency among MPs.

The 2017 intake are for the most part distinctly unimpressed, not least because of the willingness of his allies to stir talk of a coup against May in the fraught weeks after the election. One ironically compares Johnson's small band of cheerleaders to anti-Brexit campaigners: "There are still a few of them left. They haven't realised they've lost, and it's over. It's like they're remainers."

The Heathrow vote will come and go, and with it the jokes at Johnson's expense. But their popularity underlines an uncomfortable truth for the Foreign Secretary: even fewer of his colleagues think him credible enough to be prime minister than in 2016. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.