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The rebel alliance plotting against Boris Johnson

Johnson’s march on Downing Street seems unstoppable. Yet he is far from unassailable as Tory antagonists plan the resistance

For most of Boris Johnson’s political career, it was a well-sourced article of faith at Westminster that the reason he would never become prime minister was the contempt in which he was held by many of his colleagues. Doubts ranged from his ability to perform well in the House of Commons, to his laziness in his role as mayor of London – where he preferred to outsource much of the difficult work to talented deputies – to his error-strewn tenure at the Foreign Office, to his lack of ideological commitment.

Conservative MPs would privately say that they had no greater wish than to make sure that Johnson never darkened the door of Downing Street, and that they would do everything in their power to make sure that any Johnson bid for the leadership failed.

The Tories’ poor showing in the European Parliament elections and their dire poll ratings broke the back of the parliamentary party’s Stop Johnson tendency: the success of Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party turned the minds of many MPs away from the question of who was best suited to hold office and to who was best equipped to win it. As one Johnsonite convert said, the choice is between “someone who I fear wouldn’t do anything as prime minister, or Corbyn, who I fear would”.

The former mayor of London won every ballot of Conservative MPs by a clear margin and went into the final stage of the contest – in which an estimated 160,000 paid-up members of the Conservative Party will pick one of either Johnson or Jeremy Hunt to be its next leader and thus the prime minister – having amassed the support of 160 MPs, a majority of the parliamentary party. But while the fear of electoral defeat broke Tory resistance to Johnson’s candidacy, it did not kill it.

Lost in the excitement of Johnson’s consistent lead among MPs was that it took him five ballots to achieve what Theresa May had in just one: the support of an absolute majority of her parliamentary colleagues. While there was, undoubtedly, a measure of tactical voting by Johnson’s allies to ensure that Hunt, not Michael Gove, reached the final two, the inconvenient truth of Johnson’s march on Downing Street is that more than a hundred of his colleagues, knowing full well that the former foreign secretary was a near-inevitable winner in the race, opted for defiance rather than surrender. The usual dynamic is for MPs to fall in line behind the runaway winner in the first ballot – May’s rivals collectively gained just 18 votes between the first ballot and the last. Johnson’s last two rivals picked up more than 30 apiece.

The anti-Johnson resistance is alive and well in the parliamentary party, and it is more ideologically diverse than supposed. So what will they do next?

Nominally, the immediate threat to Johnson is Hunt. Much to the surprise of his former leadership rivals, who expected that Hunt would spend the summer not so much running against Johnson as positioning himself to remain in post under a Johnson premiership, the Foreign Secretary is approaching the task of defeating the front-runner with considerable zeal. He has licensed briefings from his allies that Johnson is bottling the contest by swerving televised debates with Hunt. (Johnson has agreed to do one, but only after postal ballots have arrived at the homes of Tory activists, rendering it near-pointless.) Hunt has criticised Johnson’s failure to front up and branded him cowardly.

Yet while Hunt has shown more vigour than his critics expected, Johnson started the contest with a 48-point lead over his rival among Conservative members, and even an energetic campaign is unlikely to erode it sufficiently to stop Johnson becoming prime minister.

More worrying for Johnson are the doubts of those who are superficially on his side: Brexiteers who fear that his pro-Leave position is a convenient posture from which he might, at any point, resile in search of political advantage. These MPs largely backed Dominic Raab in the first round of voting and while some have since reconciled to Johnson, they are carefully watching his media appearances for signs of backsliding. If there is a threat to Johnson’s leadership hopes, it is that Brexiteer doubts about his conduct become mainstream. The former mayor has, so far, done a good job of reassuring this faction: making Iain Duncan Smith his campaign chief is designed to shore up his credentials as a committed Leaver.

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Frustrating the party’s soft Brexiteers and its pro-European remnant is not a short-term worry, but it will be a limit on Johnson after he enters Downing Street. As Theresa May wryly reflected in cabinet, if one feature of her leadership has been Brexiteers voting against Brexit, a feature of her successor’s tenure will be former Remainers voting against a no-deal departure. The organisational base of those efforts will remain the cross-party group of backbenchers centred around Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford; Oliver Letwin, the Conservative MP for West Dorset; and Nick Boles, the former Conservative MP for Grantham who now sits as an independent. But it will be bolstered numerically by some of those currently sitting around the cabinet table with May.

Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, has been a vocal critic of proposals for a no-deal Brexit and has vowed to do his utmost to resist them, while David Gauke and David Lidington, both likely to return to the back benches under Johnson, have also been voluble opponents of the idea. Similarly minded is Rory Stewart, whose campaign for the leadership ended in defeat and who has vowed not to serve in a government that pursues no deal. But Amber Rudd, the Welfare Secretary, is not considered likely to play a major role: her One Nation caucus, founded for this leadership election to prevent the election of a no-deal Brexiteer, failed to prevent Johnson making his way to the top two. Adding insult to injury, many of the MPs who facilitated Johnson’s success are themselves members of the caucus.

As for the small core of committed Remainers in the Conservative Party, they will continue to take their lead from the cross-party People’s Vote campaign and from the Tory MP Dominic Grieve, whose legal expertise means that his colleagues tend to defer to him on how best to use legislative amendments to achieve their aims. 

Part of Johnson’s problem is that while internal opposition is at its most well-organised around the issue of Brexit, it is by no means confined to it. Hammond has frustrated his cabinet colleagues with his fiscal hawkishness as Chancellor and he will continue to take a dim view of uncosted spending as a backbencher. As Gauke recently noted on Twitter, “every Telegraph column by Boris Johnson increases borrowing”.

The front-runner has mooted an increase in infrastructure spending, a hike in education funding and an income tax cut for those on the higher rate. But Johnson has also nominally committed to letting debt fall as a share of GDP and both of his putative chancellors – his early supporter Liz Truss and his former leadership rival Sajid Javid – are committed to balancing the books. Whoever he picks, whether it is Truss, Javid or an outsider, it is unclear where the parliamentary majority for Johnson’s first Budget will come from.

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Who will be in the team tasked with navigating these choppy waters? We simply don’t know. As one MP reflected recently, “The question with Boris is always ‘who runs him?’” Will it be Lee Cain, his long-time spinner? Some MPs hope it will be Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who worked with Johnson on his 2008 and 2012 mayoral campaigns and who is credited as being one of the few operatives able to get Johnson to take direction and behave with a measure of discipline.

A few conspiracy-minded Tory MPs believe that Johnson will simply attempt to recreate the set-up that served him well as London mayor, with roles for his allies from that period, such as the MPs James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse. (Both briefly ran for the leadership but probably only in order to lend greater weight to their endorsements of Johnson.) Others hope that it will be Carrie Symonds, a veteran of Conservative Campaign Headquarters and Johnson’s current partner, who pulls the strings of the politician-puppet: but some MPs fear precisely that.

Disparagers of Team Johnson – even those who are publicly supportive – have been troubled by a difficult first week of the campaign. Johnson’s desire to hide from media scrutiny was complicated when police were called to Symonds’s flat in Camberwell, south London, after Johnson and his partner were heard yelling at one another by neighbours. The police concluded there was nothing of concern other than raised voices, and no Conservative MP believes otherwise.

Yet there are several who feel that the handling of the row was alarmingly inept. A bland statement saying that all couples have loud arguments and thanking the neighbours for their misplaced concern would, in the minds of some Johnson allies, have ended the story in a few hours. Given that a recording of the incident was passed to the Guardian, it would have been a statement delivered through gritted teeth, but, as one MP puts it, “better gritted teeth than a black eye”. Instead, the campaign belatedly arranged the release of a staged photograph of Johnson and Symonds smiling together while sitting around a garden table. “If this is how they deal with small-bore shit,” another MP raged to me, “how are they going to handle a general election?”

The management of the row exposes the weakness of the campaign: a tendency to misread bad news stories and prolong them rather than kill them off.

Johnson has pursued the classic tactic of the front-runner, attempting to avoid media scrutiny and televised debates.  In the face of a few sharp words from Jeremy Hunt – the charge of cowardice stung – and grumbles from the media, he reluctantly agreed to a blitz of interviews on 25 June: each one gifted an uncomfortable headline.

Because of Johnson’s commanding lead among party members, one understands his reluctance to submit to greater scrutiny.  And yet he is vulnerable to the grumbling of media chums. And this speaks to what some critics fear will be one of his greatest problems in No 10: a compulsive need to be liked.

That, too, is the conclusion both the Labour leadership and the Liberal Democrats have drawn: they think that the Johnson operation has shown how it can be beaten. Put the former mayor under pressure and he makes unforced errors that expose him to greater danger. But for his supporters, most think that this difficult week has been a useful reminder of Johnson’s mortality rather than a sign of looming political death. Johnson’s weaknesses, and that of his team, have been exposed. But they will not prevent him entering Downing Street, and when he does, they believe, his operation can be refined.

Are they right? It’s a reminder that even Johnson’s allies think he can only succeed if his freedom to indulge himself is sharply limited. And if he is to flourish as prime minister, it will only be if he holds office while others wield the real power. 

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.

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order