The rise of Boris

Britain is close to getting a new prime minister. Following Theresa May’s resignation, the Conservative Party has been engaged in the process of choosing a new leader; three rounds of voting by MPs have so far whittled the original field of ten down to just four: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid.

A further ballot (or two, if need be) tonight will reduce that to just two, and those two will then contest a postal ballot of all the party’s members, which will take place over the following month. A winner is expected to be announced on 22 July, and he (only two of the ten were women, and they were both eliminated in the first round) will presumably then be sworn in as prime minister.

That all makes it sound like a tale of gripping suspense, but in fact there is almost no doubt as to who the eventual winner will be. Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary and former mayor of London, has a wide lead among MPs and is expected, if anything, to do even better among the grass roots.

In the third round, Johnson had 143 votes to 54 for Hunt, 51 for Gove, 38 for Javid and 27 for Rory Stewart, who was eliminated. So unless there’s some huge defection from his supporters, it’s impossible for Johnson not to be in the top two – the only doubt is about who his opponent will be.

And that matters very little, because the differences between Hunt, Gove and Javid are minor. All of them base their appeal on simply not being Johnson; their policy differences with him (and with one another) are slight.

Gove, like Johnson, was a leader of the “leave” campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum; Javid is also historically anti-European, although he nominally backed “remain” in 2016; Hunt was a more solid “remain” supporter, but says he has since changed his mind. All of them, like Johnson, have said they are willing to countenance a “no deal” outcome to ensure that Britain actually leaves the European Union.

And there’s not the slightest doubt that that’s what the Tory membership wants. Even in the unlikely event that the MPs had chosen a pro-European in the top two (Stewart was the only one to offer himself), they would have lost the postal ballot in a landslide.

Johnson will win because he has become the public face of reckless, uncompromising, hard-line Brexit. That’s what Conservatives in the constituencies overwhelmingly believe in – which, it’s fair to assume, is exactly why Johnson has taken that position.

But in the country as a whole it is very much a minority position. So the question for Johnson as prime minister will be whether he can somehow leverage that into a majority: either in the existing House of Commons, or in a new one if he chooses – or is forced into – an early election.

Stranger things have happened, but his prospects do not look good. Although May was repeatedly defeated in the Commons on her Brexit plan, she refused to treat that as a vote of no confidence in her. Johnson will probably not have that luxury.

May, for all her ineptitude, had two advantages that Johnson lacks. First, having won (albeit narrowly) a general election, she could claim a popular mandate, whereas Johnson will be relying on a parliament elected for someone else. Second, May stood roughly in the middle of the spectrum of views in the parliamentary Conservative Party, whereas Johnson is very much down near one end.

Both pro- and anti-Europeans were somewhat restrained in their opposition to May for fear that her defeat would let in something (by their lights) worse. But the pro-Europeans have no reason to be so restrained in relation to Johnson, since he already represents their worst-case scenario. Conversely, if Johnson backtracks on his enthusiasm for “no deal”, the sense of betrayal from the anti-Europeans will be all the more extreme.

And the scope for fudging the issue is steadily narrowing as the new Brexit deadline of 31 October looms closer. As prime minister Johnson will have to make decisions, and whatever he does is going to upset a substantial number of those whose votes he needs to survive.

As has become clear in recent months, there is no possible parliamentary majority for any particular Brexit option. And having been chosen to deliver Brexit, it’s hard to see how Johnson will be able to treat the inevitable defeat on his plan – whatever it turns out to be – as anything other than a matter of confidence.

He may forestall that outcome by going to an early election first, but the state of public opinion is such that the result would almost certainly be a House of Commons fragmented to an unprecedented degree, with the divisions over Brexit rivalling – perhaps even surpassing – the traditional party lines in importance.

In that environment, Johnson is unlikely to be a survivor. Jonathan Lis puts it well:

Whatever he attempts will fail, the country will turn on him, and eventually he’ll want to leave. Perhaps Johnson will achieve his life-long ambition, realise he never even wanted it, and it will be the happiest ending for both him and us.

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