Boris Johnson is ahead in the Tory leadership race. But how is he doing so well?

The One Nation group’s mission was to prevent the election of any candidate who would contemplate a no-deal Brexit, but it seems it may not be able to.

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Everything’s coming up Boris? The former foreign secretary has extended his lead this morning with three new public nominations from MPs. He is on 40, 14 ahead of Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.

Of course, the number that matters isn’t 40 but 105. Why 105? Because that’s the magic number when no amount of tactical voting by the other campaigns can keep Boris Johnson, or any other candidate over that threshold, from the final ballot of Conservative Party members.

It’s a measure of the air of inevitability around the former mayor of London that his was the best attended of the closed-door hustings put on by the One Nation group of Tory MPs (chaired by the Spectator’s Katy Balls).

The One Nation group’s central mission at the start of this leadership election was to prevent the election of any candidate who was willing to contemplate a no-deal Brexit, but that Johnson is pulling away from the chasing pack indicates that it may not be able to.

Johnson, like the other candidates at last night’s hustings – Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart and Andrea Leadsom were also under the spotlight yesterday, the others will be put through their paces tonight – promised MPs that he would not call an election while Brexit is unresolved, and reiterated his opposition to a second referendum. 

So what’s left? Whoever wins will still have no majority, no negotiated accord that can pass muster with the DUP and no clear way to pass the withdrawal agreement, unless that vital block of 30-50 Labour MPs moves beyond writing pained articles about how holding a second referendum is really very difficult and actually decides to vote for Brexit.

But the real reason for Johnson’s success is that most MPs backing him don’t believe any of the candidates when they promise not to hold an early election: they think that the party will likely be forced into one sooner rather than later, so they are better off backing the man they see as a surefire winner and worrying about what comes after that later.

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.

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