The puzzle of the Conservative leadership campaign is that Boris Johnson, the favourite, is not further ahead. According to the betting markets, his chance of winning is one in three. That means there is a two-thirds chance our new prime minister will be someone else.
There are two hurdles at which Johnson could fall. The first is that he could fail to make it into the last two in the MPs’ ballots that will probably start on 11 June. These votes traditionally take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the last placed candidate dropping out each time, although other no-hopers can withdraw voluntarily.
How this is likely to work in practice is that there are two blocs of Conservative MPs: the hard Brexiteers and the soft Brexiteers. These are fluid categories, but it means that the final two candidates are likely to be one from each bloc. That means a hard-Brexit candidate, probably Johnson or Dominic Raab, going into the runoff against Michael Gove or Jeremy Hunt.
Johnson’s first target, therefore, is to beat Raab. He currently has more Tory MPs publicly signed up to his campaign, and we are promised an “army” of new supporters on Monday, led by Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury.
But Raab is pitching himself as a more resolute advocate of a no-deal exit, and is well placed to scoop up the votes of other hard-Brexit candidates – Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom – as they drop out.
If Johnson can get past Raab, he then has to face the soft-Brexit candidate in the head-to-head vote among the Tory party membership. If Tory MPs are serious about choosing a candidate capable of stopping Johnson (or Raab), they have to choose Gove. The party members will not tolerate another Remainer turned Leaver. So we could be heading for Johnson versus Gove – the completion of the unfinished business between the co-leaders of the Leave campaign.
This ought to be the easier stage of the contest for Johnson. A YouGov poll of party members last month suggested he would beat either Gove or Hunt by two to one. The same poll found two-thirds of Tory members support a no-deal exit. A new poll after the European elections found 59 per cent of them had voted for the Brexit Party.
But there is always a doubt about Johnson – about whether he has the self-discipline, and indeed the demented self-belief, needed to prevail. Some Tory MPs still feel they were once bitten by Johnson bottling out of the race last time, when Gove torpedoed his campaign a couple of hours before it was to be launched.
At this crucial stage of the present campaign, when his best tactic would be to say nothing, I am told that Johnson’s team were in despair about his inability to keep quiet. He confirmed he would be a candidate at a conference of insurance brokers in Manchester a week before Theresa May announced her departure; and then he set out his Brexit policy – “we will leave the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal” – at a another conference of Swiss finance executives last weekend.
Last week I wrote that Johnson appeared to have boxed himself in on Brexit, ensuring that his time as prime minister would be disastrous and short. This week I am not even sure he is going to get that far.
It is not that I think Gove is a strong candidate. He is unpopular with just about every interest group for which he has held ministerial responsibility. One soft-Brexit Tory MP told me he would support him, but “my farmers can’t stand him”. Teachers and parents – a rather large subset of the population – tend to have hostile memories of his time at education.
But his campaign video launched this morning is impressive, with a well crafted central message: “It is not enough just to believe in Brexit – you’ve got to be able to deliver it.”
I don’t think any prime minister can deliver Brexit, which is why I think the Conservative Party is doomed. But if anyone could it would be Gove. The gist of Johnson’s Daily Telegraph columns is that people ought to stop being such glumbuckets and have faith. It is almost as if he doubts himself; as if he is urging himself to believe.
Maybe “just believing in Brexit” is what the Tory party wants to do, rather than bothering with the boring reality of a parliament determined to block a no-deal exit. But I think Gove has thought harder about how to get Britain out of the EU.
And if it is demented self-belief that wins these things, I think Gove has more of it than Johnson has.
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