Boris Johnson's leadership bid survives, but his premiership can't

The frontrunner evaded questions about his private life at today's Tory leadership hustings. But his party won't support him if does the same on Brexit.


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The timing of the first hustings for the Conservative leadership ought to have been inopportune for Boris Johnson. His appearance before members in Birmingham came just hours after the revelation that police had been called to deal with a domestic incident at the flat of his 31-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds. With no explanation forthcoming from his campaign last night, the question of just what happened in the early hours of Friday morning was always likely to be the first put to him. 

And so it proved. Iain Dale, the broadcaster, opened his questioning of Johnson - the first extended interrogation the favourite has undergone since the start of his campaign - with a series of questions about the incident in particular and the bearing his private life in general might have on his fitness for office. 

The former foreign secretary's response was striking for two reasons. The first was the extent to which it wasn't really a response at all. Rather than engage with the substance of Dale's question, or indeed acknowledge the day's biggest story at all, he waffled about Routemaster buses and insisted that his audience would sooner hear about his plans for the country.

More striking than Johnson's evasion, however, was the reception it received. His intuition was correct. Dale's pursuit of the point was met by loud booing and heckles. Despite conceding that questions about his character were legitimate, the frontrunner managed to escape without answering any of them. The audience's appetite to hear an explanation was similarly negligible. 

That reflects a truth about the relationship between Johnson and his party that many will find unpalatable: most Tories simply do not care. 

Ask any of Johnson's 160 parliamentary backers about his set-to with Symonds and the most common answer is essentially a shrug. "Couple has row. Big deal. It will blow over," says one minister. "It'll be forgotten in a week," concludes a Cabinet source. You are more likely to hear complaints about the conduct of the Guardian, who first broke the story, than the prime minister presumptive. 

Even supporters of Jeremy Hunt doubt that it will change the race in any meaningful way. Their hope is that it will legitimise questions, if not attacks, about Johnson's private life and personal character. On this afternoon's evidence, however, they have little hope of getting answers from Johnson - or a hearing from the membership. There was precious little to suggest that anything can stop him cruising to victory next month.

But that isn't to say Johnson had as good an afternoon as he might have hoped for. Yes, he delighted his audience - and won a standing ovation - with his pledge to "get Brexit done". Yet, as he himself acknowledged, there was plenty of hostile questioning: on whether he could unite a party and country riven by divisions over Europe, his commitment to delivering Brexit, his opposition to HS2, his disobliging comments about the business community, and his ability (or lack thereof) to win the votes of ethnic minorities.

On those questions, he provided little more than equivocation. Most notably, he again refused to say whether - or how - he would take Britain out of the EU by 31 October. Even if Johnson manages to evade questioning on his private life all the way to Downing Street (with the support of Tory members), he won't be able to avoid the political questions he fudged today upon his arrival. Neither his parliamentary party nor grassroots will let him. So while there was little in his appearance to suggest looming disaster for the leadership bid, there was plenty of reason to believe there will be no honeymoon once the premiership begins. Dale even went as far to dub Johnson the future Lady Jane Grey of Downing Street, after the Tudor queen who reigned for nine days. There is as yet no evidence to suggest he can avoid that fate.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.