Boris Johnson, Mark Harper and the certain path to a Tory landslide at the 2020 election

Peering into the future, we discover that Boris will fail to lead the Conservatives to victory after all. That job goes to a little known state school educated MP

John Rentoul
Saturday 02 April 2016 14:25 BST
Faces of the future? Labour's Heidi Alexander and the Conservatives' Mark Harper
Faces of the future? Labour's Heidi Alexander and the Conservatives' Mark Harper

With no Doctor Who on television at Easter for the first time since the Late Cretaceous, and having found the key to the Tardis in the pocket of an old coat, I thought I would do my own time travel. Let me take you to Friday 8 May 2020, just to see how Boris Johnson is getting on.

Strangely enough, the former Prime Minister has just been accosted by journalists, coming out of his north London house, and is blustering away. He refused to answer questions about the confusing financial scandal that prompted him to resign in 2019 or whether he hoped to return to government. “I have only one thing to say,” he said, “and then, if you don’t mind, I shall return to the bosom of my family. I want to congratulate Mark Harper on his thumping victory in yesterday’s election and to offer him my unconditional support.”

It would not take the time-traveller long to discover, by reading the digital newspapers, that Harper had been returned as Prime Minister with the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1983. The blue-collar message from the state-school-educated Tory – the same message that had carried him to victory in the Tory leadership election against Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the previous year – had crushed a confused and divided Labour Party.

As is traditional, Labour sentimentalists were full of admiration for the way the Labour leader, Heidi Alexander, had fought the hopeless fight. Indeed, since she had defeated Jeremy Corbyn six months ago, in the fourth Labour leadership election in four years, she had showed great skill in neither fully renouncing nor standing by her predecessor’s programme.

Much was made of Sir David Butler’s assessment that, on the new parliamentary boundaries, she had probably saved Labour 100 seats. However, she had already resigned and Fritter, the new social media craze, was full of speculation that Wes Streeting, the shadow chancellor, was about to announce that he would be a candidate to succeed her.

At this point I would be trying to avoid the pitying glances as I struggle with a primitive iPhone. Fortunately, the Tardis has upgraded the software and I could Google the EU referendum of 2016. Thought so, I tell myself, as I discover that the British people voted to leave the EU by a tiny majority, a figure that was right in the middle of the wide range of opinion-poll estimates.

Afterwards, all the pundits who had confidently predicted that “the fundamentals” were in David Cameron’s favour said that they had always thought that the triple whammy of the euro meltdown, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks would be decisive. Just for fun, I looked up the article I had written in April 2016, in which I pointed out that polling by James Morris of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that, as voters are exposed to the arguments, they become more likely to say they intend to vote Leave.

From there it was fairly easy to trace the chain of events to the Conservative leadership election in September, in which Boris Johnson defeated Stephen Crabb, and the endless stories about the new Prime Minister’s negotiation of the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU in 2018. Within a year, of course, everyone complained that the economy was going down the toilet and that immigration was out of control. Opinion polls suggested that, if there were another referendum, people would vote to rejoin the EU.

Tory party members, though, adored Prime Minister Johnson, even when, or perhaps the more so because, he unintentionally insulted President Clinton at the White House. The surreal exchanges between Johnson and Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions became a cult internet hit in the huge new online market in India.

For a while, Corbyn enjoyed a boost to his popularity. In December 2016 he was re-elected as leader against a challenge from Jamie Reed, the Blairite MP, with an increased share of the vote. But, after Johnson was forced to stand down a year before the general election, and was replaced by Harper, the popular Health Secretary, Labour’s poll rating dropped to the low 20s. Each year, a different candidate stepped forward to challenge Corbyn, and in 2019 Heidi Alexander, who had been Harper’s shadow at Health, finally succeeded.

Harper had been lucky to be in the right place at the time when Johnson’s financial scandal broke. As Chief Whip after the 2015 election, he had “learned how to count”, he said, and understood the interplay of faction, interest and ideology among Tory MPs. He benefited from the rosy glow of not being Jeremy Hunt when he became Health Secretary, and paradoxically from Gove’s generosity as Chancellor in fully funding the New Deal for Doctors.

By the summer of 2019, Tory divisions over Europe had started to heal, and Harper had led those who sounded more enthusiastic about making Brexit work than some of the Outers. His coded attack on Cameron’s long-running sulk – “the British people are never wrong” – came at just the right time.

Then the Tardis started making that funny noise, and I didn’t even have time to get that week’s lottery numbers.

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