Boris Johnson wins a mandate to lead the Tories – but not to govern

The Conservative membership's overwhelming endorsement of a no-deal Brexit will cause problems for a frontrunner with no majority – as will any attempt to compromise.

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Boris Johnson has won a commanding victory in the Conservative leadership election, beating Jeremy Hunt by a margin of more than two to one. The former foreign secretary won 66 per cent of the vote to his successor’s 34 per cent on a turnout of 87 per cent of the Tory party membership, and will replace Theresa May as prime minister tomorrow. 

The scale of Johnson’s triumph is precisely as his team had anticipated and hoped. Having already won more than 50 per cent of MPs in the parliamentary rounds of the contest, his resounding victory over Hunt gives him a mandate not just to lead but to impose his will upon the Conservative Party in parliament; such is the strength of his endorsement from its grassroots. 

In keeping Hunt below 35 per cent of the vote — a threshold that Hunt’s allies have privately admitted would count as success in a race where the odds were always stacked against him — Johnson ensures that the job of building a cabinet and government of his choosing can begin on his terms. 

It is also a significant and unambiguous endorsement of a no-deal Brexit from the Conservative membership, whose influence has only grown over the course of May’s premiership. Those backbenchers reflecting on their future in a party led by Johnson, who is intent on leaving the EU whether or not he has a deal, may look at that margin and take it as a cue to leave before they are pushed.

One minister, Anne Milton, has already reached a similar conclusion, and quit the government ahead of Johnson’s coronation this morning. For Johnson, who will enter office as a prime minister with no majority of his own and with a by-election defeat looming, that overwhelming mandate for no-deal may sow division more than it inspires unity. The inconvenient truth is that, if he stays true to his rhetoric on no deal, he is likely to find that his mandate to lead doesn’t allow him to govern.

But the scale of his victory suggests another possibility – that he will use his newfound authority to deliver the sort of compromise on Brexit that he set himself against during the campaign. Some of his supporters certainly hope he will take that path, and expect him to present a repackaged version of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement. If he does, however, he will find another group just as willing to take advantage of his lack of parliamentary majority as the anti no-deal resistance: the European Research Group's Brexit ultras.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

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