Don’t bet on a Boris Johnson leadership

Despite his post-resignation revival, the row over Boris Johnson’s burqa comments shows his path to the top job is still too narrow for comfort. 

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Boris is dead. Long live Boris! Six weeks ago, the former foreign secretary was a busted flush, mercilessly mocked by colleagues for his refusal to resign to vote against Heathrow expansion and without a plausible path to the Conservative leadership.

But since his actual resignation over the Chequers plan, Johnson has ridden the tsunami of Tory discontent with Theresa May’s Brexit back into contention (and the pages of the Telegraph). Last week he polled top when ConservativeHome asked members who they wanted to succeed Theresa May.

For evidence of the fillip his brand has enjoyed since his resignation, take the road less travelled to the Instagram account of Tory vice chair Rehman Chishti. Among the holiday snaps he shared last week was a hilariously unsubtle snap of him reading Johnson’s Churchill biography on the beach. Nuanced it isn’t. But it does show which way some Tories think the wind is blowing. The received wisdom is that Johnson is back.

The only problem with this emerging consensus is that it isn’t very wise to suggest so at all. For a critical mass of Conservative MPs, Johnson is still toxic, as the reaction to his latest screed and accusations of Islamophobia underline. Alistair Burt, his former colleague at the Foreign Office, has condemned his comments on women wearing the burqa, whom he compared to bank robbers. Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman, has called for Johnson to apologise.

The backlash exposes the shonky reasoning behind arguments for a Boris revival. ConHome’s leadership surveys are always a reliable barometer of what the Tory grassroots are thinking. What they don’t do is tell us what Tory MPs are thinking. Even allowing for his newfound status as tribune for the hard Brexiteers, he is still fishing in a small pool as far as his parliamentary colleagues are concerned.

This matters, no matter how many breathless headlines we read about a surge in his popularity among Conservative members. Members will not have the chance to vote for him unless he reaches the final two among MPs. With Tories predicting a long list of contenders – a “clown car” is how one puts it – doing so will necessitate having the sort of broad, unifying appeal in parliament Johnson doesn’t have.  

The character flaws that hobbled his leadership bid in 2016 still exist: the divisiveness, the lack of repartee with colleagues, the duplicity, the laziness. The trajectory Brexit has since taken has repelled some natural backers, and the trajectory he is advocating will repel more still. Add to that the baggage of his two unedifying years as foreign secretary and the pool gets even smaller.

None of this is to say Johnson reaching the final two, or indeed winning, would be impossible. But what it would be is incredibly difficult. The rush from Burt, Lewis and others to condemn him today offers an indication of how quickly the next leadership race would become an exercise in walloping, and then stopping him. Many newer MPs are distinctly unimpressed.

Those that will back him are not influencers or opinion formers. Take the laconic verdict one senior Tory offers on Rehman Chishti’s unsubtle holiday snap: “He’s just a knob, isn’t he?” That the description could as easily apply to Johnson or any other of his supporters augurs badly for how the inevitable leadership bid will go. More credible figures, Sajid Javid chief among them, are willing to bear the standard of the Leave ultras that Johnson is betting his house on.  

As the moment Tory MPs pick their two candidates for prime minister approaches so, too, does the likeliness of success for Johnson decrease. “Talk of a Boris leadership is always inversely proportionate to the likelihood of us actually having to make that choice,” one says. This week’s controversy suggests serious trouble ahead.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.