Boris Johnson passes his first leadership test

The frontrunner to succeed Theresa May drew the biggest crowd at the first prime ministerial hustings this evening.

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Four of the ten surviving candidates for the Conservative leadership completed their first serious test this evening, as the new One Nation caucus of self-styled Tory moderates held its inaugural hustings. 

Out of view of the press - who were barred on the decidedly flimsy grounds that "job interviews aren't usually made public" - Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom made their cases to a sizeable chunk of the parliamentary party in conversation with the Spectator's Katy Balls. Barring any further drop-outs, or, indeed, new entrants, four more will follow on Wednesday evening, with the remainder taking the mic next Monday. 

So who won? Judging by numbers alone, the clear winner was Johnson, who commanded the attendance of more than 100 MPs (one naturally unsympathetic attendee admitted there were too many to count). Both Stewart and Javid were watched by eighty apiece, while Leadsom - whose bid is unlikely to be much longer for this world - spoke last to a much thinner audience of 42. 

The fluctuation in audience size matters. Though hosted by the sixty-strong One Nation group - which is pitched explicitly against a no-deal Brexit - attendance was not restricted to its members (and in any case it will not offer a corporate endorsement to any candidate). The extent to which a candidate is able to attract MPs on top of that reflects both their draw and the strength of their campaign's organisation. On that metric, Johnson won comfortably, packing out the room with hard Brexiteers. 

On substance, however, declaring a victor is a trickier call. The four candidates' pitches had a surprising amount in common. "You could make quite a good cabinet out of all the candidates," said one former minister as they left. All ruled out an electoral or parliamentary pact with the Brexit Party, and, for that matter, a new general election or second referendum. None said their first preference was for a no-deal Brexit and all, to varying degrees, ruled out proroguing Parliament in order to ram such an outcome through (only Leadsom indicated she had given doing so serious thought).

That even Johnson stressed his aversion to no-deal - instead focussing on the need to prepare for the worst case scenario - reflects just how seriously he is taking the job of wooing the centre of the Conservative Party this time around. He singularly failed to do so in 2016 and further damaged his standing at the Foreign Office. But as recent endorsements from unusual suspects illustrate, the pitch Johnson made this evening - "to stop banging on about Brexit, put that bawling baby to bed, pacify it and recapture the political agenda with One Nation Conservatism" - is cutting through, even if the keen uptake from nervous MPs is motivated by their electoral self-interest.

Even his staunchest critics admitted to being impressed by both Johnson and what one described as an "obviously broad " range of support in the parliamentary party. "He didn't fuck up," was the dry verdict of another. That his turn this evening was sober and focussed enough to elicit that sort of reaction sort of reaction underlines why he is still best-placed to win.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.