“No jokes, just vision,” one ally promised in advance. It was obviously the right approach when his rivals call for a serious leader for such serious times.
Yet there was not much vision. Johnson hit the One Nation button and promised “sensible, moderate, modern conservatism”. He did not square this with his controversial plan for tax cuts for the rich.
Nor did Johnson answer the most crucial question: what is his Plan B for Brexit if there is no new EU agreement by 31 October and the Commons blocks no deal? All he provided was sunny optimism that the EU would offer “a better deal” to a new government with conviction, confidence and a new mandate (from Tory members who account for 0.27 per cent of the electorate), and that MPs would show a sense of duty and back down. Very unlikely.
Taking only six questions from journalists after his 16-minute speech, his only concession to his critics was to say he was sorry if his direct language had caused offence – as his remark that Muslim women wearing the burqa as looking “like letterboxes” and “a bank robber” certainly did.
Johnson made a long defence of his eight years as London mayor, wrongly claiming the credit for raising school standards, which was due to the Labour government.
The Boris campaign is the polar opposite of his shambolic 2016 effort, which saw him pull out when his campaign manager Michael Gove knifed him. Friends say now that Johnson was “knackered” after the referendum (though that did not stop him from playing cricket when he should have been planning his leadership campaign). He was genuinely shaken by the angry protests outside his house. He was strangely reluctant to “own” Brexit.
In 2016, Johnson wasted precious time on one-to-one meetings with Tory MPs who were already converted. Embarrassed aides had to ask MPs what jobs he might have promised them when he couldn’t remember.
Lessons have been learnt. Johnson has had much longer to plan this campaign. His meetings with MPs in his spacious office in parliament’s Portcullis House have gone on for months, and been systematically organised. Allies insist no jobs have been promised, although that might change (in private) when some rival candidates are eliminated after tomorrow’s first ballot among Tory MPs.
Johnson Mark 2 has lost weight and had a haircut. Friends say he is off the booze and drinking Coke, a neat contrast with Gove’s activities 20 years ago. There is the “message discipline” demanded by his informal adviser Sir Lynton Crosby, which is easier when you ration your media appearances to starvation levels.
He is a lucky general this time. His party is on the floor. Arguably, the man who is really dictating this contest is not Johnson but Nigel Farage. The Tories are utterly desperate to see off this threat, which could easily propel Jeremy Corbyn into No 10.
In 2016, about 20 Tories gathered in the Westminster home of the minister Robert Buckland to plan their “anyone but Boris” campaign. Buckland, a Remainer who voted for a customs union in April and opposes no deal, is now backing Johnson. So is fellow minister Thérèse Coffey, another of the anti-Johnson plotters three years ago.
A much-predicted “stop Boris” campaign has failed to materialise. Instead, his momentum has allowed him to benefit from the desire among MPs to back the winner in the hope of landing a ministerial job.
Johnson has been helped by the presence in the race of the Thatcherite Brexiteer Dominic Raab, who makes him look cuddly by comparison in the eyes of some mainstream Tories. Johnson halted Raab’s progress with his early pledge to leave the EU on 31 October “with or without a deal”.
Tory MPs, worried about losing their seats, are prepared to conveniently forget the real doubts about Johnson’s judgment. None of the ministers who served under him during an uncomfortable two years as foreign secretary are backing him.
The serious error that leaves Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in an Iranian jail should remind his party of what critics say is a lack of attention to detail, and laziness. Then there is the trust question: he lied to the then-party leader Michael Howard about an affair.
Despite this back catalogue, Johnson is on track to turn the tables on Gove, his nemesis in 2016. Gove’s admission that he took cocaine has taken the wind out of his sails.
It now looks likely that Johnson will be up against Jeremy Hunt in the run-off among Tory members when the party’s MPs whittle down the 10 candidates to two by next week. Hunt has many strengths but will have a giant millstone around his neck with an R for Remain on it in the members’ eyes. So he is less threatening to Johnson than a fellow Leaver like Gove.
Although there is still a long way to go, a Johnson premiership seems written in the stars. But the Tory party should at least look before it leaps.
Johnson is lucky to get a second chance after his ill-fated campaign three years ago. He knows he will never have a better opportunity to become PM, and that this is his last chance.
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