Can anyone stop Boris Johnson? It is an inevitability that the former Mayor of London will be in the final two candidates of the Tory leadership contest, and already many members of other campaigns are talking about what he will do as Prime Minister, rather than how their candidate will beat him.
Given there has been an ‘anyone but Boris’ operation rumbling on for a number of years now, this seems to be a rather early admission of defeat. It is true that Johnson’s opponents were too confident in their presumption that he wasn’t sufficiently popular in the parliamentary party to guarantee his inclusion in the final two. Yesterday’s result shows his campaign team have managed to reverse any unpopularity dramatically.
This means that there isn’t much point in trying to peel off hundreds of MPs from backing Boris. The smarter thing for die-hard Johnson opponents to do is work on his appeal with the Conservative membership.
The problem, though, is that his various rivals disagree on how to beat Boris. While all of them agree that the most likely way that he will lose this contest is through some gaffe of his own, each candidate has their own attack line. Some members of some of the bigger anti-Boris campaigns have tried to reach out to their rivals to co-ordinate messaging, but this has always been rebuffed, because everyone thinks they have the right message, and that all others are weaker. The effect, of course, of these mixed messages is that they don’t cut through to the membership.
There’s the line about him dodging scrutiny by refusing to do media interviews and trying to opt out of broadcast hustings, which is largely propagated by Michael Gove supporters. Then there’s the Jeremy Hunt argument that Johnson was a very poor Foreign Secretary. Sajid Javid wants to paint Johnson as a figure of the Tory party’s past, ‘yesterday’s news’, who embodies many of its caricatures as standing for privileged old school tie types. Dominic Raab likes to argue that his opponent doesn’t have the means of securing the kind of Brexit the party wants. Rory Stewart, meanwhile, has managed to get a great deal of attention for his attacks on Johnson, but doesn’t seem to be getting as much traction with Tory members.