Boris Johnson shouldn’t get too excited – even with Hunt in second place, he could still slip up

The contest in the country is going to be the real test for the frontrunner. The longer it goes on, with gruelling regional hustings and media appearances, the more chance he'll lose

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 20 June 2019 20:21
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Conservative leadership bid: Results of fifth ballot

The key thing to understand about the Conservative leadership contest is that the reset button has now been pressed. No matter that Boris Johnson only picked up a suspiciously modest three extra votes in the latest round. No matter that the whiff of skulduggery hangs all around the narrow defeat of Michael Gove for second place, and Jeremy Hunt’s unusually successful final push. (He added 18 votes to his tally – more than he’d added in all the previous rounds combined.)

It looks as if Mr Johnson managed to nobble Dominic Raab in the second round, Rory Stewart in the third round, Sajid Javid in the fourth, and now Gove in this one. He won 51 per cent of the vote among MPs, but that might have been more had some of his backers not tactically voted for Hunt, as has been suggested.

That’s politics; and the MPs have no further say in the matter.

But Johnson’s apparently commanding lead among his Conservative parliamentary colleagues has no necessary bearing on how the party members in the constituencies, from Cornwall to Orkney, will see things.

They are fond of Johnson, certainly, as the sort of chap they’d like to have a drink with: a loveable rogue, a toff. They don’t find some of his offensive views very objectionable at all, seeing it as “straight talking” or some such – the cynic might call it Johnson dog whistling at them. Even so, some harbour doubts at the grassroots level, and Johnson may not quite be the colossus he appears to be in the Westminster village.

Besides, the overwhelming margin of victory among MPs is exaggerated by a “bandwagon” effect. Those seeking their cabinet jobs back (Gavin Williamson, Michael Fallon?) and those seeking promotion (Liz Truss, James Cleverly?) will make up a proportion of the Johnson group.

The breadth of Johnson’s appeal to MPs is, thus, not simply down to his charisma or sometimes elastic views on Europe or any other policy. There is cold calculation by Tory MPs at work too.

No blandishments or promises of a nice job in HM Treasury can work for the voluntary party workers. The contest in the country is going to be closer, and the longer it goes on, with gruelling regional hustings and media appearances, the more chance Johnson will start to slip. There might still be an upset.

These estimated 160,000 individuals (according to the party chair Brandon Lewis), are under no obligation to follow the lead set by their MPs. They are independent-minded types in any case.

The national vote is not simply another “round” following on from the MPs section or the “second half” of a match.

Now, it is a completely new game – new voters, new prejudices, and new interests. Indeed, you could argue that everything that has happened in the contest over the past fortnight or so is irrelevant now.

The Tory membership is predominantly male (70 per cent), white (97 per cent), middle class and resides in the wealthier parts of the country, particularly the southeast of England.

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As for their views, they are, fairly predictably, to the right of the electorate as a whole, and they are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit, and no-deal Brexit at that. A recent poll suggested they are prepared to sacrifice the economy, and the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland, to get it.

Given that the two men’s approach to Brexit is almost identical, the different appeal of the candidates descends to base electoral considerations. Namely: who is most likely to pin Nigel Farage back and put the Brexit Party out of business? Or do a deal with the Faragists? And who is most likely to beat Jeremy Corbyn, and vanquish a man they regard as the leader of a dangerous Marxist insurgency?

Much is made of Johnson’s personal weaknesses. Yet, maybe Tory members are more broad-minded than the rest of the country might suppose. Certainly, they will put party interest before personal morality. They may be persuaded that in the 2016 referendum, in two attempts at the London mayoralty and in this present election (albeit only thus far among Johnson’s fellow MPs), Johnson has shown that he has a profile and potential electoral appeal that his rival lacks.

It was said earlier in the campaign that the only person who can defeat Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson. With the relatively weak foreign secretary, that aphorism is truer now than ever. All Hunt can really do is to wait for him to fall over.

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