Five months ago, allies of Boris Johnson were ready to launch his bid to become leader of the Conservative party. The election was imminent and even David Cameron was fretting that the Tories were going to lose. A sympathetic pollster had prepared the numbers that made the post-defeat case for Boris: he extended the Tories’ reach, and a party that had failed to gain a majority for 23 years desperately needed a greater reach. There was a policy agenda ready to magnify this appeal, too: compassionate conservatism, based around adopting the Living Wage. Boris had kept a plausible distance from these preparations. But one of those charged by No. 10 with sniffing out plots against the Prime Minister says of the Boris operation, ‘Everything was geared to make it happen. Anything short of just shy of a majority, and it would have been in play.’
It was not to be. To everyone’s amazement, Cameron won an overall majority. When the Prime Minister arrives at the Tory conference in Manchester this weekend he will be master of all he surveys. The party has adopted an official slogan: ‘stability, security and opportunity’. But for Cameron, one word will suffice: ‘vindication’. His extraordinary election victory, to his mind, justifies everything from his decision to modernise the Tories to his going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. His dream — being the first Tory leader since Baldwin to quit of his own volition — has never been closer to reality.
The Labour party conference was a reminder that the Tories now look set for ten more years in power, not just five, and plans are being made on that basis. Mr Cameron has chosen a date for his departure: his closest allies in Downing Street have been told that he intends to announce he’s leaving in the spring of 2019. The Tory leadership race would then take place over the summer, with the new leader introducing themself to the country at the party conference that autumn. He wants that leader to be his Chancellor and good friend George Osborne. One of Cameron’s closest confidants tells me, ‘There’s such momentum behind George — and David is so happy about that.’ He thinks the Chancellor would be ‘fantastic’ as his successor.
Where does this leave this magazine’s former editor, who swapped journalism for politics so that he could become prime minister? To have a shot, he needs to be one of two candidates chosen by Tory MPs to go forward to a vote of all party members. Reaching this stage requires a tribe, a network of support inside Parliament. But that isn’t Boris’s strong point: he isn’t a natural Westminster insider. He is used to being adored, and not so good at the grind of making friends and influencing people — especially MPs he may regard as dull, vain or both. One Boris-inclined grandee complains, ‘He keeps saying, “We must meet up.” But nothing happens.’ An Oxford contemporary of Boris’s remarks: ‘He has never had a gang, and that’s his problem.’
Tory backbenchers have been struck by how even those MPs who worked with the Mayor in City Hall don’t seem particularly close to him. One influential backbencher who is friendly with the Mayor says despairingly, ‘I don’t think Boris has an operation.’ To make matters worse, Boris is up against someone who is a master at this kind of politics. Osborne is the consummate insider and is busy building up a quite awesome network of support. He has worked hard at proving that he rewards those loyal to him, using reshuffles to demonstrate his personal power of patronage.
Serving as the Chancellor’s parliamentary aide is a solid career move for any MP: four of those who did so in the last Parliament now sit round the cabinet table. He is assiduously courting the new intake of Tory MPs too. Every new bug who spoke in the economy debate at the start of this Parliament has received a personal note of thanks from the Chancellor. Every single member of the 2015 intake will be invited to dinner at No. 11 before the end of the year. Osborne’s long leadership campaign has begun.
It is tempting to say that all this shouldn’t make a difference; that the Tory leadership race should be about who would be best for the party and the country. But in politics, these seemingly little things matter. MPs, even more than the rest of us, want to feel loved: knowing the name of everyone’s spouse will undoubtedly be worth a few votes in this contest. If Boris is to make the final two, he needs to get better at this aspect of the job.
Part of Boris’s problem at the moment is that he cannot claim to Tory MPs that he is one of them. He might be a MP — but his day job is being Mayor of London. He is one of the new intake but also a parliamentary veteran; a member of the political cabinet but not in the actual cabinet. He frantically pedals between City Hall and Parliament in an effort to be present in both places; when he leaves one building for another, his team send a text to their colleagues saying ‘Incoming’. But it is only his absence that is noticed. Boris famously once declared that his position on cake is both pro-having it and pro-eating it. But at the moment he is managing to do neither. The Chancellor has also stolen his signature policy, announcing a National Living Wage in his most recent budget. The Mayor is now a man without a plan.
Boris is trying. But he faces what one supporter describes as an ‘orchestrated low-level sniping campaign’. When he makes a mistake, it quickly becomes the talk of Westminster. Recently, he made a rather obvious attempt to be more engaged at political cabinet — he had been stung by reports that he wasn’t saying enough at these meetings, which are largely designed for his benefit. But the effect was rather spoiled by his habit of chuntering away while others are speaking. This offended precisely those people he needs to court.
His allies console themselves by saying that the leadership election is years away; this is ‘powder-dry time’ and the Mayor is happy to let others make the running while the ball is still in the scrum. Indeed, Boris will make a conspicuous display of loyalty at conference by, unlike in previous years, staying for Cameron’s speech. But this conference is taking place in Manchester, the heart of Osborne’s northern powerhouse, and will be very much the George and Dave show.
Boris could even be squeezed out of this leadership contest altogether. Tories with long memories are quick to claim that the Cameron campaign in 2005, managed by one G. Osborne, told some of their supporters to lend their votes to David Davis in the final parliamentary round to keep Liam Fox, a more formidable candidate, off the membership ballot. They speculate that the same could be done to Boris this time round unless he recruits more allies in the Commons.
The worry for Boris is that the 2010 intake, the largest group among MPs, are beginning to flex their muscles. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, indicates on page 24 that she will run, family permitting, and believes that it is imperative that there is a female candidate in the race. Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary and a protégé of the Chancellor’s, is also considering a tilt at the top job. Those close to Osborne stress that he and Javid have not made any Granita-style deal. But one cabinet ally of the two men predicts that the pair will end up running on a joint ticket.
In all this leadership manoeuvring, Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as Osborne’s unlikely ally. The Chancellor’s weakness is that, while he may be the pilot who weathered the economic storm, he can’t match Boris’s charismatic appeal. But the Tories don’t need some brilliant populist to beat Corbyn, they just need someone half competent. As one minister puts it: ‘Boris hasn’t got a chance as long as Corbyn is Labour leader. He’s the one you pick if we need a bit extra, something special — and, at the moment, we don’t.’
So at present, it seems like only a political tidal wave could halt Osborne — and one may arrive, in the form of the EU referendum. The Chancellor will almost certainly vote to stay in. Should the Mayor campaign to leave, he would instantly separate himself from Cameron and Osborne and align himself with the instincts of a large swath of both Tory MPs and the grass roots membership. One well-connected Tory peer who will support and raise money for Osborne says, ‘If it wasn’t for the European issue, George’s network would make him unstoppable.’
Yet it is not at all clear which way Boris will jump on Europe. Friends say he is torn between an instinctive belief that Britain must play a role in Europe and a sense that the renegotiation is being mishandled. A senior source at City Hall says that the Mayor has met Dominic Cummings, the leader of the nascent ‘No’ campaign, to ask about his strategy. But he has not decided which side of the fence to come down on, and is unlikely to do so soon. Those who know Boris best point out that despite his devil-may-care persona he is surprisingly cautious and doesn’t take a risk until he absolutely has to.
Favourites, notoriously, tend not to win Tory leadership contests — so it might be a mixed blessing for Osborne to find himself moving ahead. But the Chancellor is not a man to let a lead slip. As one No. 10 aide jokes, ‘It isn’t so much a shadow operation, but one that overshadows us.’ Staffed with the best and the brightest, with little regard to party loyalty and a meritocratic disregard for old connections, it is distinctly Osborne. If the economy suddenly tanks, Osborne’s prospects could go down with it. But he is leaving as little to chance as possible.
Perhaps worst of all for Boris, many cabinet ministers have already written off his chances. One observed to me recently that his moment has come and gone — that his ‘timing was just a bit off’. But this isn’t quite right. Politics isn’t following the script at the moment, and referendums have a habit of changing everything. The migration crisis has put the EU vote back in the balance. Tellingly, No. 10 is already fretting about the ‘In’ campaign. If it flounders, then that is the time for Boris to pounce — but if he doesn’t overcome his risk aversion, then his greatest political achievement will be having been Mayor of London. As Shakespeare has Brutus observe, ‘We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.’