I’m writing this from the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham where I’ve been asking more or less everyone the same question: ‘When David Cameron gracefully exits the political stage in 2018, having won a thumping majority in 2015, who do you most want to succeed him: Boris Johnson or Michael Gove?’
The popular choice is BoJo, obviously. In his diaries, Alan Clark used the phrase ‘Fuhrer Kontakt’ to describe the electrifying current that pulsed through him whenever he encountered Margaret Thatcher in the corridors of the House of Commons and there is only one Conservative politician who has a comparable effect today. Like Thatcher, Boris combines tremendous force of personality with a dash of vulnerability – an irresistible cocktail. He is adored by large swaths of the population, not just the Tory faithful, and that is a huge political asset.
But if you talk to the professionals — veterans of countless political wars — you begin to detect notes of caution. Could his ‘brand’ withstand the scrutiny that would accompany a six-week general election campaign? Would the electorate really entrust him with the keys to No. 10?
The nub of the issue is whether he could convince people he’d be a serious prime minister, capable of staying on top of the boring, day-to-day business of running the government. I spoke to one senior political hack who knows Boris well. His view is that he’d be an excellent wartime prime minister, but might have trouble devoting all his attention to the job in peacetime. This was echoed by another political columnist who said Boris’s problem is that he’s too intellectually talented. He’s never had to really apply himself to achieve anything — at least, not often — so he hasn’t developed the tenacity that other, less naturally gifted politicians have.
Like Michael Gove, for instance. I don’t think Gove is any less clever than Boris, but he lacks his abundant self-confidence. For that reason, he’s more thorough, more fastidious. It’s no accident that his education reforms are this government’s biggest success story. He may lack Boris’s ability to connect with the public, but almost everyone who knows him — particularly those closest to him — believes he would make an excellent prime minister. The only person who doubts this is Michael himself. As he said to the editor of this magazine, ‘I know what it takes to be in that job and I just know… that I don’t have it.’ The general consensus within his circle is that he isn’t just ruling himself out because he knows any hint of interest in the top job would undermine David Cameron and be a direct challenge to George Osborne. He genuinely doesn’t believe he could do it. Which is odd when he so conspicuously could.
My view — and I should stress that this is my view, not one that anyone close to him has passed on — is that he thinks he lacks the psychological toughness to withstand the pressures of being prime minister. He fears that, like Gordon Brown, he’d be driven slightly bonkers by the anxiety. That in the pressure cooker that is 10 Downing Street, he’d turn to mush.
Now I don’t think this self-assessment (if Michael really does think this) is accurate. He’s demonstrated that by dealing so effortlessly with the brickbats thrown at him by defenders of the status quo in the education sector. He doesn’t seem worn down by the daily battle, but invigorated by it. Over the past two and a half years he’s grown in stature — become more authoritative, more commanding. More prime ministerial, in fact.
By 2018 — or sooner if Cameron loses the next election — Michael may have changed his mind about this, and if he does I’ll find it hard to decide between him and Boris. If this was America rather than Britain, the solution would be simple: Boris would be the presidential candidate and Michael the vice-president. But in the absence of that, the ideal would be some magical combination of the two: Boris’s electrifying charisma and man-of-destiny levels of self-belief accompanied by Michael’s tact and charm and extraordinary capacity to master the quotidian detail of public policy. Let’s call this candidate Michael Johnson — or MoJo for short.
Is there a MoJo out there who could lead the party to victory in 2020? If so, he or she is probably lurking among the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs, an incredibly impressive bunch. Liz Truss? Dominic Raab? Jesse Norman? He won’t thank me for saying it, but I rather like the cut of Rory Stewart’s jib.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.