Parliament is out for the summer. David Cameron is on the European leg of his holidays. But Boris Johnson is still beavering away, using the summer months to seek advice from his eclectic group of confidants as to how he can make it to No. 10. Make no mistake: his ambition burns brighter than ever. He wants the top job, and he’s determined to get it.
But Boris’s political calculations have been radically altered by his realisation that the main obstacle to him becoming Prime Minister is not David Cameron but the Home Secretary, Theresa May.
The Mayor and May are, on the face of it, opposites. She is the epitome of caution, he throws it to the wind. He yearns to be loved, she wants to be respected. He revels in the show business of politics, she disdains it. But they are both fiercely ambitious and hard-working. It is no coincidence that while others are off sunning themselves, these two are busy making headlines. Johnson is now convinced that the next Tory leadership contest will end up as a fight between them.
The Spectator understands that Boris has made it clear to the Cameron circle that he will not seek to return to the Commons before 2015. He will not be a candidate in any by-election.
More significantly, he won’t stand at the 2015 general election either. Rather, he will carry on as Mayor. This means that he will not be a member of the new parliament, at least initially.
Boris’s decision to sit out the general election is a sign that he expects Cameron still to be Prime Minister and party leader after 2015. When the Tories’ fortunes were at a low ebb and it seemed that polling day would be followed by a Tory leadership contest, he was keen on the idea of a rapid return to the Commons. Conservative Campaign Headquarters was so anxious that Boris would stand for the plum Tory seat of Croydon South in 2015 that it urged the local association to choose its candidate early; the logic being that the earlier the selection, the more difficult it would be for Boris to apply. Senior members of the Croydon South association were equally convinced that Boris wanted the seat and so resisted these entreaties.
But Boris’s view on what will happen at the next election has — like that of so many Conservatives — changed recently. He has told friends that he has no desire to spend the three years after 2015 serving under Cameron. Johnson is not a natural second fiddle. He also remembers all too well Cameron’s refusal even to put him in the shadow cabinet in opposition. It was this snub that persuaded him that he would have to leave Westminster to make a serious political career for himself.
Boris calculates that if Cameron loses, creating a Tory leadership vacancy, he could persuade a Tory MP to stand aside for him. Ever since he was at Oxford and relied on his ‘stooges’ to get him elected president of the union, Boris has always been able to charm others into furthering his rise. As he put it in a youthful essay for his sister Rachel’s book The Oxford Myth, ‘The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.’ A quick by-election would mean that he could be back in parliament before any leadership contest had finished.
Some Tories think even this isn’t necessary. One senior figure who is familiar with the rules stresses that a leadership candidate only has to be nominated by MPs; he doesn’t have to be one. They believe that Boris could imitate Alec Douglas-Home and enter the Commons via a by-election after he had gained the Tory leadership.
Besides, the technicalities are less important than the fact that the party would look ridiculous if they did not allow the most recognisable Tory in Britain bar the Prime Minister to stand for the leadership. A leadership contest without Boris would be –Hamlet without the Prince. Any block on him running would lead to intense media pressure to let him enter the race. And if we were to see a Boris-free contest, the eventual winner would be dogged by doubts as to his or her legitimacy and speculation about what the blond one would do next. For these reasons, the party will have to find a way for the Mayor to be a candidate in the event of a Tory leadership contest in 2015.
By not standing in 2015, Boris heads off several potential problems. First, he doesn’t have to break the ‘solemn vow’ he made to Londoners to serve a full second term and not to combine the mayoralty with ‘any other political capacity’. Ignoring this commitment would have made Boris look like just another shifty politician. It is also, as some of his closest friends concede, particularly important for Boris to keep his promises. So far, the public have been remarkably uncensorious about his romantic escapades. But if his opponents could claim that Johnson was a serial breaker of his word, then his private life might become more of a matter for opprobrium in public.
Second, if Boris acted as if he expected a Cameron defeat, he would pit himself against the man who twice helped him get elected in London, the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, who is now in charge of the Tory re-election effort. Johnson knows how good Crosby is and how much easier it would be to make it to the top with his support. George Osborne’s belief that hiring Crosby was the best way to put Boris on a leash seems to have been vindicated.
In the last two years, Boris has assumed that after Cameron, Michael Gove would be his main rival for the crown. He saw everything that Gove was doing through the prism of a future leadership bid. Gove’s frequent declarations that he didn’t want the job, and that he would back Osborne, only added to Boris’s sense that his fellow journalist-turned-politician was certain to stand.
But Boris has finally been persuaded by mutual allies that Gove really doesn’t want the job. The improvement in the economy — combined with Osborne’s improving media performances — suggests that the Chancellor might be better placed in this leadership marathon than the pundits realise. He certainly has a more sophisticated parliamentary and back-room operation than any other putative candidate.
But it is not the fellow Bullingdon boy who worries Boris, but the vicar’s daughter, Theresa. The Home Office is meant to be a political morgue. Yet May has used the position to transform her reputation. When Cameron gave her the job in May 2010, she wasn’t known for much more than having told the Tories that they were seen as ‘the nasty party’. Today, however, she is the Home Secretary who finally kicked those Islamist troublemakers Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada out of the country. She is the politician who has started to get a grip on immigration and the one who has dared to take on the last great unreformed public service, the police force. This run of successes has seen her eclipse Boris as the bookies’ favourite for next Tory leader.
Intriguingly, May now feels confident enough to range far beyond her brief for the first time in her career. She is trying to carve out a philosophical position for herself within the party. Her Toryism is about championing the citizen over big bureaucracy and the consumer over big business. With the aid of her key adviser Nick Timothy, she is presenting herself as the hammer of vested interests.
The Home Secretary is also developing a stronger parliamentary presence. She may not be naturally clubbable, and she has little time for small talk, but she has learnt to come out of her shell. She is more comfortable at social occasions than she was and, to the relief of her closest political allies, no longer approaches informal conversations as if they were a hostile interrogation on the Today programme. Her frank interview with the Mail on Sunday about being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes showed that she is now comfortable with the level of media attention that comes with being the senior woman in government. The reaction to it was also a reminder of the considerable affection there is for her in parts of the party and the media.
May remains perhaps too cautious ever to grab the top job. Her natural instinct is to consolidate rather than dominate. She is also a little staid for our political system, which likes a touch of star power — something Johnson has in abundance. There’s also the problem that many of her fellow politicians don’t regard her as a good boss. You’ll find more than a few of her juniors, past and present, who complain that she micromanages, something no one ever accused the great delegator Boris of doing, and that she is quicker to take credit than blame. Fair or not, this smoking-room chatter can develop an outsize importance in the parliamentary rounds of a leadership contest.
Much could happen between now and the next Tory leadership battle; a member of the new intake could eclipse both Johnson and May. We also don’t know whether the vote will take place with the Tories in power, coalition or opposition.
But the bigger unknown is the European question. The next Tory leadership election may turn on the candidates’ attitude to the EU deal that Cameron hopes to negotiate in the coming years. The party will almost certainly want more than he can bring back. His successor could well be determined by who can best persuade the party that they can finish the job and avert a catastrophic Tory split over the issue. Johnson and May will set about doing that in very different ways.