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Boris Johnson – The False Favourite for the Tory leadership

May 30th, 2019

Right now British politics and British political betting is consumed by the race for next Conservative leader and next Prime Minister. Conventional wisdom on both is that Boris Johnson is the man to beat. He has traded below evens on Betfair for the roles and after an initial rush of excitement, he has settled down in both next Conservative leader and next Prime Minister markets at about 5/2 at the time of writing.

Certainly there is evidence to back up his favourite status if you go looking for it. All the polls and surveys that we have suggest that if the members get to vote for him, he will win. One commentator last week suggested that he was so much the front runner that he might not even be opposed (a prediction which, as we now approach 15 candidates, has not aged well).

Cards on the table, I have long been a BoJo-sceptic. He has been tested as Foreign Secretary and has been found wanting. Just as tellingly, he has not shown any vision about Brexit, just tactical manoeuvring. He seems to have been constantly seeking to insert himself into the debate about the future of Brexit whether or not he is adding any new insights.  

He saw David Davis quit after Chequers and sprinted after him, for fear that he might be left behind in the affections of Leavers. His Telegraph columns have become pale pastiches of his earlier work, fluent but lacking point or insight. He announced that Theresa May’s deal was worse than Remaining in the EU, but nevertheless eventually voted for it. In short, he seems to have lost it.

None of this seems to have put off Conservative members, who evidently think about this very differently from me. I have to accept that I have previously been too hasty in writing off his chances. Lack of ability and faded Norma Desmond stage presence are obviously not the deal-breakers for diehards I would have expected them to be. There’s a lesson to learn there.

So, clearing my head of preconceptions, what are Boris Johnson’s chances now? If he gets to the last two, he has to be heavy favourite.But will he? To do that, he has to be one of the last two standing among MPs.

Half the Parliamentary Conservative party have declared their allegiances. Boris Johnson is in the leading pack but he is not at the head of it. Given that MPs do not need to vote in accordance with their stated allegiance (it’s a secret ballot), this would be an ideal opportunity for careerist MPs to curry favour with someone who they thought was an inevitable winner. They’re not taking it. The logical conclusion is that they don’t think he’s a done deal by any means.

But there is a clearer tell than this. I may have no feel for what makes Conservatives tick. I do, however, have some table presence from years at card tables and boardroom tables. And there has been a gigantic tell that Boris Johnson is up against it to reach the last two.

As I write, there are seven candidates for Conservative leader who voted Leave. Besides Boris Johnson, we have Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse. We might also be treated to Steve Baker, Graham Brady, Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt. There may yet be others.

If the view of Leavers in Parliament was that Boris Johnson was the man to lead Britain out of the EU, he would be facing no serious opposition for the role. He would also be gathering the support of other heavyweight Leavers. They can see his immense popularity with members. If they thought he was supportable, they would be supporting him.  

These are men and women who have worked closely with him. Kit Malthouse was his deputy Mayor of London. But they are instead fighting against him. The logical conclusion is that they do not think that he is the man for the job (or that too many others do not think that he is the man for the job). If this is the view of the leading Leavers, it is likely to be the view of the lesser lights too.

It seems he has drawn the same conclusion, since he has recruited Amber Rudd to his cause in a bid to enlist Remainer MP votes, trying to forge as unlikely a union as that forged between Ken Clarke and John Redwood in 1997. This latest gruesome twosome seems doomed to be as unsuccessful as the previous one.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that Boris Johnson is a false favourite and that his odds should be far longer than they currently are. So despite my past failures to read his enduring popularity with Conservative members, he looks like a clear lay. Like last time, he might well pull out.

It is hard to see who will emerge from the swamp of candidates as the Leaver candidate of choice (Dominic Raab has the public support and Andrea Leadsom has the better track record, it might yet be someone quite different), but we are all being dazzled by Boris Johnson. Don’t be.

Alastair Meeks