How Boris Johnson’s damaging dash for glory came to a sudden end

As the clown of Westminster departed the stage having withdrawn form the Tory leadership race, behind him lay the wreckage of his party’s unity, his country’s economy and the hopes and dreams of the architects of the European Union

Charlie Cooper
Whitehall Correspondent
Thursday 30 June 2016 20:48
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Boris Johnson thought he had a clear run in his race for Tory leadership
Boris Johnson thought he had a clear run in his race for Tory leadership

They say a week is a long time in politics, but in the new, post-Brexit world, it is an eternity. In the space of less than 24 hours, between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, all expectations about who will lead this country through arguably its biggest crisis since the Second World War were turned upside down, sending shockwaves that will continue to spread across the political firmament for years to come.

As late as 7.45pm on Wednesday night, Michael Gove’s office was still sending emails to MPs supportive of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid, inviting them to the former London mayor’s launch event the following morning. By midday on Thursday, Mr Johnson was out of the race, torpedoed by Mr Gove’s shock decision to run. On the evening before, Mr Johnson had attended a reception for Conservative MPs at the M&C Saatchi building in Soho.

There was already some disquiet in the room about the way the frontrunner was going about his leadership bid. Monday’s Daily Telegraph column, in which Mr Johnson appeared to retreat on some of the promises of the Leave campaign, had caused misgivings among the right wing of the party. Many MPs had also been put out by the loose manner in which Mr Johnson had gone about drumming up support across the party. Fifty MPs and ministers, most of them in the Remain camp, had been due to hear his pitch that morning, only to be told with 15 minutes’ notice that he was cancelling.

Meanwhile, jobs and promotion were being dangled in front of wavering supporters, but with no concrete assurances. In short, a certain arrogance and looseness of grip was putting a lot of people off. But as they gossiped over drinks, Johnson’s supporters remained confident. At 8pm, an announcement was due to come in that they hoped would dispel all concerns. Andrea Leadsom, one of the most admired champions of the Leave camp and a prospective leadership candidate herself, was expected to be confirmed, via Twitter, to be backing Mr Johnson.

8pm came and went. The announcement didn’t come. MPs began refreshing their Twitter feeds on their mobile phones with increasing urgency. It never came. Ms Leadsom would go on to confirm her own leadership bid. But the news that she was not backing Boris resonated with Mr Gove and his closest allies, who had already found Mr Johnson a difficult man to deal with since the Brexit vote last week.

It was only after urgent talks late on Wednesday night, with a handful of key allies including human rights minster Dominic Raab, that Mr Gove made the fateful decision not to back Boris, and to run himself. Since the Brexit vote, he had been egged on by his team, by fellow MPs, and, in a now infamous email, by his wife, to stand up to Mr Johnson.

Michael Heseltine lays into Boris Johnson

On Monday Rupert Murdoch, an admirer of Mr Gove, tipped him as the “most principled and most able candidate”. As it became clear on Wednesday night that Ms Leadsom was not backing Mr Johnson, Mr Gove’s team began to put calls in to trusted allies who were backing the Johnson/Gove ticket. The message was clear: ‘Michael should go for it’. By midnight, his mind was made up.

In the morning, calls were made to Lynton Crosby, the election mastermind who had been set to back the Johnson campaign. Mr Gove’s team say he tried to call Mr Johnson but couldn’t get through, although this has been disputed by the Johnson camp.

Whatever the truth, at 9.02am on Thursday morning an explosive email from Mr Gove’s team landed in the inboxes of the Westminster press pack. “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead…I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership.”

Boris Johnson had been due to launch his campaign in the luxury surroundings of Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel, at 11.30am. So it was that, as leadership rival Theresa May was launching her own bid in a well-received Whitehall press conference, Mr Johnson was grappling with a stark choice between carrying on despite Mr Gove’s bombshell, or dropping out of the race.

According to some sources, his team were already concerned about the number of MPs firmly signed up to back him. Inevitably, he would now haemorrhage many supporters to the Gove campaign. Only Boris Johnson knows for certain what tipped him over the edge, but it seems clear that he made the calculation that he could no longer win it.

Boris rules himself out

With press and supporters gathered at St Ermin’s, he embarked, 11 minutes late, on the speech that could become his political epitaph. The clues were there when he made a strange reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, reflecting on the need not to fight against the tide of history “but to take the tide at the flood and sail on to fortune”. The line is taken, not quite word for word, from a speech by Brutus, the friend turned assassin of Caesar.

But the final reveal still had the power to shock. For a politician who made his name as the court jester, only to strive for the crown, Boris teed himself with a fitting phrase. After setting out what would have been his manifesto for leadership, he said: “That is the agenda for the next Prime Minister of this country.

“But I have to tell you my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in lieu of the circumstances in Parliament I have concluded that person cannot be me.”

The clown of Westminster had delivered his final punchline. As he departed the stage, behind him lay the wreckage of his party’s unity, his country’s economy and the hopes and dreams of the architects of the European Union. Like a restaurant after a visit by the Bullingdon boys: a mess for someone else to tidy up.

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