Every campaign has a wobble — and Boris Johnson is getting his in early. A mix of complacency (he felt confident enough to allow his campaign fixer, James Wharton, to catch up on his other commitments) and the drama at his partner’s flat have combined to put him on the back foot. To compound matters, Jeremy Hunt has gone on the offensive. It’s starting to resemble an actual contest.
Or it might, if there were really any serious prospect of him losing. As one veteran of Tory leadership contests puts it: ‘The members are still behind Boris. It is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.’ This Tory argues that when the Brexit-backing members hear the attacks on Boris Johnson, they assume it is as much about stopping Britain leaving the EU as anything else. Their instinct is to defend him.
The biggest challenge for Boris Johnson is not winning this contest; it is working out both a governing strategy and an electoral one. Johnson has enough advantages in this contest to weather a few missteps. Once he gets through the door of No. 10, though, he’ll have next to no room for error.
Johnson may even face a no-confidence vote as soon as he becomes prime minister. I understand that an influential figure on his campaign team has urged him not to carry out a reshuffle until he has got over that hurdle. A no-confidence vote when the government’s working majority is just five is not the time to have a bunch of people who have just been sacked sulking on the backbenches.
When it comes to the next cabinet, the Johnson team is determined to restore proper, collective responsibility: everyone who serves in it must be prepared to accept the Boris Johnson position that the UK is leaving the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. That does not mean that they would all have to say that no-deal was what they wanted; a deal would still be the government’s preferred outcome. They would, however, have to accept that if a new deal could not be negotiated, the UK would leave on 31 October regardless. This position should allow for a relatively broad cabinet. Johnson himself is convinced that the threat of no-deal will lead to the EU making sufficient concessions to get a deal through parliament.
I understand that the civil service will immediately urge prime minister Johnson to request a special September meeting of the EU Council. They argue that without such a move, the Commission’s negotiating mandate won’t change. Nothing could happen therefore before the October Council, which would be cutting things too fine.
Even Johnson’s confidants think that the EU will, at least initially, try to call his bluff — and reject the idea of reopening the withdrawal agreement. This is when things will get really interesting. Under Boris Johnson, the UK’s government response to this would be to ramp up no-deal planning.
The question would then be: what does parliament do? It’s expected that MPs would try to compel the government to seek an extension. This provision would have to be in place well before the EU Council on 17 October. If this effort succeeded — and Boris Johnson would try to beat it back by arguing that he needed the no-deal option on the table for negotiating leverage — then the government would resist it. If the Commons wanted to enforce its will, it would then have to bring down the government, making a general election highly likely.
This is why how the polls react to Boris entering No. 10 is so important. Despite everyone in politics claiming that they treat opinion polls with more caution following the mistakes of the past few years, polls still determine the mood at Westminster. If Boris Johnson delivers a poll bounce for the Tories, politics will feel very different. He’ll have more authority over his own party and his opponents will be more wary of a general election.
The importance of the polls is why many in the Johnson camp are keen to have a Budget as soon as possible when parliament returns in September. They hope that a Budget with a string of popular measures such as tax cuts would give them momentum ahead of any October showdown. Indeed, Johnson has been making spending commitments which are reminiscent of the kind generally made during general election campaigns. He has already moved to try to shut down the Tory vulnerabilities on school funding and police numbers. The Tory leadership contest, though, has provided plenty of ammunition for Labour in its case that ‘Tory austerity’ is responsible for Britain’s ills. The Home Secretary has admitted that the reduction in police numbers has contributed to the rise in crime; the former health and social care secretary has admitted that ‘some of the cuts in social care did go too far’; and the International Development Secretary has called the care system a ‘disgrace’.
If the country is forced into an election before Brexit, this would be extremely difficult for the Tories. The Brexit party would eat into the Tory vote, while the Liberal Democrats would try to pick up Tory seats in the south-east.
The challenge for the Tories would be to find a way to link Brexit to their domestic agenda, something that Theresa May failed to do in 2017. A hint of how they might do that came in a speech that Lynton Crosby gave to Policy Exchange, a thinktank with strong links to the Boris camp.
Crosby argued that class-based voting was breaking down, which provided opportunities for the Tories. He cited the Australian statesman Robert Menzies’s 1942 Forgotten People speech as a template for what a Tory campaign could look like. This speech argued that the real constituency that politicians should focus their attention on was not the rich and the powerful, who can look after themselves, or those at the very bottom, whose conditions are so often determined by law, but the broad mass of the country — ‘the strivers’.
One can see how this message could be married to Boris Johnson’s desire to give the rest of the country the same infrastructure and opportunities that London has as well as the sense that on Brexit, the mainstream’s view is being forgotten and frustrated by a parliament dominated by those who voted Remain.
Tory MPs and members are voting for Boris Johnson because they think he is their best chance of winning an election. The question is, how long will he have as prime minister before he has to prove that?