The Tory leadership contest hasn’t even officially got underway yet, however this hasn’t stopped the mainstream news media from talking up Boris Johnson as the one most likely to succeed Theresa May as UK prime minister. It’s ‘his race to lose’, they claim, based on the fact that amongst the Conservative Party membership — who ultimately get to decide who the next prime minister will be — Johnson is the most popular candidate.
I’m not wholly convinced he will become the next prime minister though. Here’s why:
Boris is no doubt popular with the grassroots membership of the Conservative Party. Therefore, if he does end up as one of the two final candidates the party membership get to choose between, it’s most likely he will be the winner.
But he actually has to get through to that final round first — and this is by no means a given. This is because to make it as one of the final two, he will need the backing of a considerable number of his fellow Conservative Party MPs. And Boris is no way near as popular with his parliamentary party colleagues as he is with the party membership.
You need look no further than this New Statesman article to get a sense of just how loathed he is by some MPs: one has said they would rather “eat broken glass” than have Johnson as prime minister; another would rather “swallow their own bodily fluids”.
Many others have called into question aspects of his character and his abilities as a parliamentarian. In an article in The Times last September, foreign minister Alan Duncan criticised Johnson’s abilities as foreign secretary. He said the Foreign Office had to “invest an enormous amount of time” in “handling” Johnson. Duncan also criticised him for being too preoccupied with the media limelight. Prominent backbencher Dominic Grieve has also said he doesn’t think Johnson has the “necessary skills and capacity” to lead the party, based on his performance as foreign secretary, and that he is “unfit” to be prime minister. Others, such as fellow leadership contender Rory Stewart, have implied that he is untrustworthy.
Then there are those who are concerned that he would take the country down the path towards a no-deal Brexit. The ‘One Nation’ group of 60 moderate Tory MPs have made it clear they do not want the next leader to pursue such a course, believing it would be a disaster for the UK.
And yet, despite his unpopularity amongst MPs, the political commentariat, along with Tory insiders, have suggested that enough of them would be prepared to ‘hold their noses’ and lend their support to Johnson. Why? Because they perceive him as being popular with the electorate, and therefore the leader most likely to boost the Tories’ appeal and win them the next general election.
There’s a very real possibility that Boris could mess things up so badly that he ends up killing off the Tory’s electoral prospects completely.
This is all plausible, but I think there’s something else that needs to be considered here. Let’s say Johnson does become prime minister. There’s going to be a period of time — it could be weeks, it could be months — between him taking office and a general election taking place. And in that period of time, however long it may be, there’s a very real possibility that ‘BoJo’ could mess things up so badly that he ends up killing off the Tory’s electoral prospects completely.
Boris may have the charisma to take on Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, but his track record as a parliamentarian, including as foreign secretary, should raise serious doubts as to whether he is competent enough to be able to successfully deliver Brexit, the most complex political project the UK has undertaken in decades.
This will surely be a factor when MPs decide who to back as leader, particularly given the parlous state the Conservative Party currently finds itself in. After losing more than 1,200 councillors at the local elections in early May, and coming in fifth place behind the Greens at the recent EU elections, after voters switched to the Brexit Party, the Tories know that to stand any chance of holding onto power at the next election, they must deliver on Brexit. If Johnson fails in this, his charm and buffoonery will count for nothing, and into oblivion the Tories will go.
This is why I think it’s quite likely that, despite all the hype being built up in the media and at Westminster about Boris being the next prime minister, when it comes down to it, enough MPs will choose competency over charisma and decide not to install him as the next prime minister.
Indeed, at the time of writing, Boris’ former friend-turned-foe Michael Gove, the environment secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, have the most support amongst MPs. Boris is currently third favourite.
This will no doubt change once the leadership contest gets officially underway, and the candidates’ campaigns kick into full gear. What won’t change though is the political crisis the UK currently finds itself in, a crisis which threatens to destroy the Conservative Party if it continues to handle Brexit as disastrously as it has done to date.
It could therefore be that MPs decide, in the end, that backing Boris Johnson is simply too much of a risk to take.