Stop reading Boris Johnson’s columns for clues as to who will be the next Tory leader

For a guide to how Johnson will do in a leadership election, look at what other ambitious Tories are writing and saying instead.

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Tom Watson did a passable impression of the sort of tabloid hack he so reviles over the weekend. In a Saturday night blog sourced from anonymous Tory MPs, Labour’s deputy leader suggested that Boris Johnson would today “go public with a full-frontal leadership bid to topple Theresa May and install himself in Downing Street”.  

“Look out for Johnson’s Monday column in the Telegraph,” Watson wrote, “in which many of his colleagues expect him to fire the gun”. Despite the paper splashing his latest offering – an anaemic argument for turning Britain into a low-tax economy – the former foreign secretary has done nothing of the sort.

There are two problems with Watson’s blog. The first is that it simply isn’t true (though at this point, everything Johnson does can reasonably be interpreted as a leadership pitch). The second is that it makes the mistake of assuming that Johnson’s columns offer a useful insight into the dynamics of the race to succeed the prime minister and his chances of success.

They are frequently assumed to be dial-shifting catnip for backbenchers and grassroots members (consider his “suicide vest” line in yesterday's Mail On Sunday, and his comments on the burqa). But I would argue that they tell us very little about the shape of the next leadership race. Not compared to those by other Tories, anyway. For observers of the coming scrap, much more interesting than the front page of today’s Telegraph was yesterday’s, which picked up a lengthy ConservativeHome column on leadership by Penny Mordaunt.

The pro-Brexit international development secretary is among the names most frequently touted by Conservative MPs as a future candidate for leader. Mordaunt’s piece is the sort of thing you only write if you have ambitions in that direction and want others to know about it: she complains of a failure of leadership and says that “politics and how we govern needs to change”.

Could she win? The case for the defence: Mordaunt has decent political antennae and a relatively low-risk, touchy-feely ministerial brief, which allows for better PR than most. She has picked fights with Theresa May on emotive issues like abortion in Northern Ireland, and has somehow managed to avoid publicly backing or disavowing Chequers.

That last clause, however, could be weaponised for the prosecution and in private plenty of Tory MPs will waspishly tell you that Mordaunt simply isn’t bright enough to lead the party. But she would nonetheless stand a decent chance of getting beyond the opening rounds of a contest.

It’s for that reason that her column, and other public interventions from ministers straying beyond their briefs – “Look out for people making speeches that are about policy visions, not Brexit,” one influential backroom Tory says – offers a more useful guide to Johnson’s chances than whatever shop-soiled metaphor he’s using to trash Theresa May this week.

What the eventual and doubtless crowded field will look like will determine how far Johnson gets. If the Brexiteer vote is split, especially by more conciliatory candidates who might be able to attract Remainers too, then his path to the final round gets even narrower. We are reading the wrong columns. Those tracking his leadership chances should pay less attention to his pronouncements and how they play among the membership, but those of ambitious Tory MPs who will be fishing in the same pool for support.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.