In choosing Boris Johnson, Conservative MPs are making a big bet on their future


Boris Johnsons appeal to Conservative MPs is based on two fronts: electability and inevitability.

On the first front, the former mayor of London argues that he is a proven winner who has what it takes to turn the partys fortune around, to put Nigel Farage out of business and then to see off Jeremy Corbyn. Thats what one MP describes as the “soft sell”, often but not always made after a visit to their constituency, where the Johnson magic can be observed at close quarters.

The second front is the hard sell: the former foreign secretarys march to Downing Street cannot be stopped, and MPs are invited to consider how unpleasant they might find life on the wrong side of a vengeful prime minister. That approach is usually made by one of Johnsons lieutenants, and MPs who have experienced it have compared it to everything from a visit from the bailiffs to a close encounter with the Mafia.

The case for inevitability looks watertight. Its not just that Johnson is the preferred candidate of the partys activist base, and has been for a prolonged period. More importantly, none of the candidates who have challenged him for the leadership has seemed capable of preventing him from becoming party leader and thus prime minister. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid have circled him cautiously, their punches pulled in order to avoid being exiled after Johnsons victory. After his betrayal of Johnson in 2016, Michael Gove is too distrusted by both Conservative activists and MPs to be an effective advocate for the case against the former London mayor. Its a measure of how suspicious Tory MPs have become of Goves motives that during the contest I have heard them speculate that he is secretly orchestrating the campaigns of Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart in a bid eventually to seize the leadership for himself.

Raabs candidacy could have, in theory, presented the most dangerous challenge to Johnson. Like Johnson, Raab resigned from the cabinet in protest against Theresa Mays Brexit deal, and his previous career bringing war criminals to trial and his libertarian streak should have given him the ability to fight a campaign that appealed to MPs beyond the partys Brexit ultras. But his campaign never managed to strike a note beyond shrill Brexitism, which condemned him to a humiliating early exit.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, spoke frankly and aggressively about Johnsons shortcomings, only to endorse him after pulling out of the contest. That dismayed his supporters and, more troublingly for Hancocks long-term political future, he failed to persuade a majority of them to follow him in backing Johnson.

Rory Stewarts frankness and willingness to attack the frontrunner directly won him the acclaim of much of the left and liberal press and, more importantly, the support of a group in the parliamentary party prepared to ignore the implicit threat of revenge under a Johnson premiership. But the messy, chaotic format of the BBCs television debate on 18 June, the last chance for the chasing pack to change the tone of the race, meant that neither Stewart, nor the rest of Johnsons rivals, had a real opportunity to attack the frontrunner and transform the contest. That missed opportunity represented the final end of any serious hope that Johnson might be defeated.

So Johnsons hard sell that he is bound to win and MPs would be wise to fall in line is near-unimpeachable. But that so many MPs are willing not only to defy the hard sell but in some cases to endorse the full-on resistance of Stewart is a sign that the other pillar of Johnsons appeal to Conservative MPs – his electability – may be tested sooner rather than later.

The worrying news for Tory MPs is that the argument that Johnson is electable is a lot harder to sustain than the one that he is inevitable. The Conservative Party has two major problems: the votes it is losing to the Brexit Party all over the country, and the votes it is losing to the Liberal Democrats, largely in the south-west and in London.

The long-term solution is easy enough: first deliver Brexit, then spend the time until the next election reassuring Remain voters that their worst fears have not come true. The problem is that Brexit cannot be delivered by this parliament – which means a general election.

If the polls are right, Johnson is the candidate who most effectively reverses the flow of defections from the Conservatives to Nigel Farages new party. But the cost of that is that he increases the rate of movement from the Conservative column to the Liberal Democrat one. And while the Brexit Party has no particular geographic areas of strength and a Nigel Farage-led party has never won a seat from the Tories without the aid of a defector, the Liberal Democrats new Conservative converts are well-placed to win them seats under first-past-the-post.

Far from being a certain winner, Johnsons leadership is a gamble on a grand scale: Tory MPs are betting that the votRead More – Source