I’m writing this from the Conservative party conference where I can report that Boris Johnson, who has just wowed the blue rinses with a barn-storming speech, isn’t preparing a leadership bid. At least, that’s the line from all those closest to him. Without exception, they say if he was planning something they’d know about it and they don’t. It’s a media concoction. He’s a man without a plan.
I know, I know. That’s exactly what Boris’s team would say if they had just press-ganged the last of 48 MPs to sign a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which is the magic number needed to trigger a leadership election in this Parliament. And there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. If Boris waits until Britain has left the EU, which is less than 18 months away, his chances will be significantly lower because the party will want a ‘clean skin’ to succeed Theresa May, not one of the protagonists in the Brexit drama. Someone who can unite the party around their vision for the future, not remind them of their disagreements in the past. Needless to say, there is no lack of younger players waiting for the ball to come loose from the scrum. Boris may only have one more ‘try’ left in him — and the clock is ticking. But I think his associates are telling the truth. One thing that is abundantly clear, wandering the halls of the Manchester Central, is that the party has no appetite for a leadership election before 29 March 2019. It would be politically toxic for the Conservatives to waste several weeks choosing a new leader when they should be getting on with negotiating Brexit. It could easily trigger a general election, given that the Conservatives don’t have a Commons majority and can’t be sure of the DUP’s continuing support. And that would almost certainly mean several Conservative MPs losing their seats and — worse — a Labour government. God knows what would happen to Brexit in that scenario, never mind the run on the pound, flight of capital and the seizure of private property. It would be Corbygeddon.
The only way to be certain of avoiding this would be if a succession could be arranged, with no need for a contest. That might appeal to Boris, but I can’t see David Davis, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, Priti Patel and Nicky Morgan agreeing to it. The last time Boris ran for the leadership, he was challenged by his own campaign manager and there would be no shortage of rivals the second time around.
So what is Boris up to? Why publish a 4,000-word essay on Britain’s post-Brexit future and then give an interview to the Sun on the eve of conference setting out his ‘red lines’ for the negotiation?
As always with Boris, it’s partly to do with amour propre. His ego was bruised by what he felt were attempts to sideline him within the cabinet, as well as what looked like some negative press briefings by his political enemies. There’s also the more general problem that his political fortune is beginning to wane. He wanted to remind people what a big beast he is. ‘Attention must be paid,’ as Willy Loman’s wife says in Death of a Salesman.
But I think the bigger reason is that he genuinely cares about Britain’s future and believes that an indefinite post-Brexit transition period, in which we continue to pay for access to the single market and are prevented from making trade deals, would be a disaster. Cynics might say that’s only because his own reputation is so inextricably bound up with Brexit, particularly the notorious £350 million a week pledge. Hard to give that to the NHS if we’re still shelling out £20 billion a year to the EU. No doubt there’s an element of that, but there’s also real passion and conviction.
People find it harder to believe this of Boris than of other politicians because of his jokey, ironic style. It’s not that he’s insincere; he’s just not good at appearing sincere. But having known him on and off for 35 years, I can attest that beneath that bumbling exterior are some strongly held political beliefs that haven’t changed much since the day I first heard him speak at the Oxford Union.
In 2002 I bet Nigella Lawson £15,000 that Boris would be party leader within 15 years. I’m fairly sure I’m going to lose — and I pray to God she doesn’t try and collect.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.