Why Boris Johnson supporters aren’t bothered by his poor campaign

The questions that the frontrunner is evading matter less than the one he has finally answered in the strongest possible terms.

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That even the Daily Telegraph acknowledges that Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign has faltered is a mark of just how poorly the frontrunner has performed since news of his brush with the police emerged last Friday. In a break from its often slavish loyalism, this morning the paper splashed on the challenge that Johnson has hitherto failed to rise to: keeping his tilt at Number 10 on the road.

His first set-piece public appearances of the campaign – at the inaugural hustings for Tory members and in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg – were studies in evasion when it came to his altercation with his partner, Carrie Symonds, and the finer points of his policy platform.

Now Team Johnson’s attempt to contain the fallout from his domestic row with his 31-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, with a picture of the couple enjoying a tender moment in the Sussex countryside, has itself backfired: in an LBC interview this morning, Johnson refused 26 times to say when the photograph had been taken, or by whom. 

And as well as Johnson’s less than enthusiastic engagement with interviewers, there is his habit for avoiding them altogether. Sky News was forced to cancel its head-to-head debate between the former foreign secretary and Jeremy Hunt after the former, as is his wont, declined their invitation. 

Taken together, the incidents only serve to reinforce the lingering perceptions of Johnson that the majority Conservative MPs supporting him have to one degree or another pushed to the back of their minds: his selective relationship with the truth, poor grasp of detail, his inability to deal with the demands of a high-pressure, high-responsibility executive role, and the uncertainty over just who will run his Downing Street operation. 

Johnson’s supporters agree that his first week under the full glare of the media spotlight has been damaging. “A grip must, and will, be got,” says one supportive minister. “It’s a complete shambles,” says another Cabinet source. “They need to get organised sharpish.” Some point to the considerably more energetic than expected start Hunt has made to the contest and suggest, half-seriously, that the membership ballot could be a closer-run thing than many in Westminster expected.

Yet few if any sincerely believe it will. Why? One of the simplest but most powerful arguments Johnson supporters make is that he has time on his side. He has been polling at above 50 per cent of the membership since before the contest began and, in the words of one of his supporters, that commanding lead means the debate is mostly irrelevant. Campaigns, they concede, do matter. But their calculation is that no matter how hapless or unedifying their man’s performance, Hunt “can’t and won’t shift the fundamentals in two weeks”. (Members receive their ballot papers on 8 July, and most are expected to vote immediately.)

Then there are the fundamentals themselves. It has always been the case that Johnson is much closer to the membership than Hunt on the issue that animates them more than any other: Brexit. That truth held, albeit a little strained, even as Johnson waffled and equivocated on whether he could guarantee that the UK would leave the EU on 31 October – deal or no deal. It has since been copper-bottomed twice over: first in an interview with TalkRadio, in which Johnson said Brexit would happen “do or die” by the Article 50 deadline, and subsequently in a letter to Hunt.

Supporters say that Johnson’s failure to give a straight response to almost every other question put to him over the course of the campaign – and his preference for avoiding them altogether – is of much less consequence now he has given an unambiguous answer to the only one that truly matters to his selectorate. 

It is no coincidence that, on the day he repeated his private pledge to Eurosceptic MPs for the first time in public, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was announced as chair of Johnson’s campaign. In private his team freely admit the title is little more than an honorific. One Vote Leave alumnus goes as far to characterise it as an attempt “to convince IDS that he’s broken into where the real decisions are made, just like the bogus ‘inner core’ meetings we set up during the referendum campaign”. That may well be true. Ultimately, however, it is the message to the members that matters.

The hardest Leavers in the parliamentary party are in no doubt as to what they think Johnson’s message is. “The only way for the Conservative Party to avoid obliteration is to exit the EU by 31 October,” Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the European Research Group and the most dogmatic of the Brexiteers supporting Johnson, told me. “I’m therefore pleased that Boris is unequivocally committed to taking us out of the EU without further delay.”

Whether that commitment can withstand a parliament opposed to no-deal is another question entirely. But it is not the question Johnson must answer if he is to win a majority of Conservative members. Having had what one backer calls a “necessary fright” in recent days, he has finally done just that. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.