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An unstable coalition – What the parliamentary vote tells us

Johnson’s big majority among Conservative MPs represents a huge victory for a man who was once thought too divisive within his own parliamentary party to challenge effectively for the leadership. Johnson took more than half the parliamentary party in the final round of the MPs’ ballot, firmly silencing the suggestions that the “Anyone but Boris” sentiment could see him fail to make the cut.

Johnson was ultimately able to assemble a broad spectrum of support ranging from hardcore Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees Mogg and Priti Patel, through to modernising Cameroonians such as Matt Hancock and Oliver Dowden. Though much of this support, particularly with party moderates, was rooted in the growing conviction that only Johnson can mount a serious challenge at a General Election and save their seats, the breadth of party support gave Johnson’s campaign an initial firm base – but the large differences of view held by his supporters, especially on Brexit, suggests it will be a difficult herd to control.

Hard Brexit members

For now, the herd that matters is Conservative party members. Johnson has consistently topped almost every poll on almost every metric among this group. No comparative polling amongst party members of a Hunt/Johnson head-to-head has put Hunt in the lead. YouGov’s latest poll of Conservative party members, just before Friday’s news broke, gave Johnson a massive 48 point lead over Hunt. Recent negative press coverage has damaged Johnson’s lead, with a recent poll for the Mail suggesting his lead had been more than halved, but he remains well ahead.

The membership of the Conservative Party currently stands at around 160,000, with 36,000 joining in the last year. That influx is almost certainly dominated by hardline Brexiteers who will back Johnson’s more obvious leanings towards a no deal Brexit. Jeremy Hunt has restyled himself as a Leaver, but his previous support for Remain is arguably his greatest barrier to winning over a pro-Brexit membership that regards Johnson as its standard-bearer.

So why are there still doubts?

Johnson’s lead among party members should make him unassailable. Yet doubts about his character have resurfaced. He memorably once talked about running for the Conservative leadership “if the ball ever came loose from the back of the scrum”. That ball is now in his hands and he has a clear run to the posts. Yet, in his limited appearances during this campaign, he has almost appeared to want to toss it away.

As Jeremy Hunt is beginning to set out a broad policy platform, Johnson has remained undercover and hasn’t made a major domestic policy announcement since last week’s final ballot. Though he has hinted at boosts to infrastructure funding, he has yet to take a clear position on HS2 or to resolve his historic opposition to Heathrow expansion. Meanwhile, what little policy he has outlined is being picked apart by the press, with today’s papers featuring heavy criticism of his calls for a cut to top rate tax and reform of National Insurance.

As many commentators have noted, Boris Johnson likes to be liked, and was visibly shaken by the public hostility that greeted him after the EU referendum. His recent exhortations for the country to unite and put its collective “shoulder to the wheel” to get beyond Brexit are genuine. He wants it out of the way, just as he appears to wants this campaign to end. In a striking moment during the recent Tory hustings he looked at his watch and asked Iain Dale, the moderator, how long there was left. He is not enjoying this – and perhaps Jeremy Hunt’s greatest chance of success lies in his opponent imploding.

If Johnson does become PM, how long will he last? 

Assuming Johnson can get over the last hurdle and enter Downing Street next month as Prime Minister, his greatest challenge will be to deliver his commitment to leave the EU on the 31st October – deal or no deal. With very little prospect of renegotiating a substantially different deal by that date, and with the vast majority of Parliament implacably opposed to no deal, his plan is already in troubled waters.

There is a growing question mark over his ability to command the confidence of his own party. Were he to actively seek a no deal Brexit, reports suggest a dozen or so Conservative MPs would be willing to bring him – and the government – down. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt, given the current political situation, but even in the midst of a leadership contest this is some serious sabre rattling.

The inevitable crunch will come in October, if it does not come sooner. Already, Johnson’s Brexit policy is being contorted. In some interviews he seeks to soften the line, saying leaving the EU by 31 October is “eminently feasible”, while in others he is forced into a harder stance, giving TalkRadio this morning a “categorical guarantee” that there would be no extension.

As Theresa May discovered, in the end these contradictions become untenable and hard choices must be made. But those choices all run the risk of irretrievably splitting the Conservative Party. In so doing, if he does become Prime Minister, Boris Johnson may find his stay in Downing Street is much shorter than he would like.

What comes next?

  • 6th – 8th July – Postal ballots go out to members
  • 22nd July – Ballot closes at 5pm
  • 23rd July – Winner announced
  • 24th/25th July – New Prime Minister takes office

 Titus Duckworth is a research consultant on Lexington’s political intelligence team. For more information about how Lexington’s experts can support you please contact: Titus.Duckworth@lexcomm.co.uk. 

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