As Theresa May and her ministers spend their summer holiday trying to convince European leaders of the merits of her widely-panned Chequers Brexit blueprint, one of her departed ministers has cause for celebration. According to the latest ConservativeHome poll of Tory members, since resigning as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has become the favourite among party members to be the next leader. Supported by nearly a third of members, this is an impressive turnaround given that a month ago – when he was still in government – he was backed by only 8 per cent of members.
However, it’s also not that surprising. As I said in the i paper last week, Johnson looks to be on course to turn Theresa May’s Brexit disaster into his big opportunity. As the Brexiteer once said: ‘My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.’ With the Tories lagging in the polls and blue-on-blue warfare rife, that opportunity is coming up the track fast.
Although the Prime Minister has clung on until the summer recess, her ministers’ leadership ambitions might not have. After the Prime Minister’s proposed Chequers Brexit plan provoked frontbench resignations, threats of a no confidence vote and a Conservative grassroots backlash, her government is in trouble. The Chequers proposals for a close relationship with the EU post-Brexit have gone down badly with Tory associations and the public; only 12 percent of voters think it is good for Britain. Talk of a leadership contest before the new year is rife, and if it happens this isn’t just bad news for May: her ambitious ministers have reason to fear too.
Before the Chequers summit, the frontrunners to make it through the Parliamentary rounds of an eventual leadership contest and into the membership run off were Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove. But the Brexit rebellion that has emerged in recent weeks over May’s proposed compromise means that this looks less and less likely. There’s a growing feeling among Tory members dissatisfied with the state of the Brexit negotiations that where the Conservatives went wrong was in picking a Remainer to lead them. Although Theresa May claimed she was a reformed Brexiteer and talked the talk to begin with, her decision to seek a softer Brexit than most Leave voters would wish for has led some to now doubt her sincerity all along. Even loyalist Tory MPs admit that they are receiving a lot of grumbling about the ‘Remainer PM’ post-Chequers. As May herself once said, ‘you can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit’.
Fair or not, this means it will be much harder for any other Remainer-turned-Brexiteer to convince voters that they really mean it. It follows that two leadership favourites – Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid – would have their work cut out. As a sign of this, Javid has slipped ten points behind Johnson in the ConHome poll. As for Hunt, if he does try to run, expect his call in 2016 for a second referendum on the final deal along with a ‘sensible compromise’ on free movement in exchange for single market access to be used against him.
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, although a Brexiteer, has found himself on the wrong side of many of his Leave colleagues thanks to his decision to stick with May over her Chequers plan. He even took to the Andrew Marr show to defend it. ‘What was he thinking?’ asks one bemused former Vote Leave official. In the ConHome poll, he has been punished the most – dropping to just 7 per cent.
And this is why an oft dismissed leadership candidate looks to be making a come back. Johnson’s decision to follow David Davis’s lead and stand down over Chequers has given him a new lease of life. The Leave-supporting press have been quick to welcome him and Brexiteer MPs such as Rees-Mogg have praised his statesman-like behaviour. That feeling isn’t shared within the Conservative Parliamentary party as a whole.
For many Tory MPs, Boris is an old joke that they’ve tired of. The problem for them is it’s not clear that voters agree. The former Mayor of London enjoys a Marmite reputation. But he still has cut through that most Tory leadership hopefuls can only dream of. A YouGov poll last month found that of May’s rivals, it’s only under Boris that the Tories would be level (38 per cent to 38 per cent) with Corbyn’s Labour. While they would trail Labour by five points under Jacob Rees-Mogg, with Gove, Javid or Hunt they’d be behind by double figures.
Would Johnson be up for it? Despite a lot of speculation that the former Foreign Secretary would use his resignation speech to go in for the kill and eviscerate May, he refrained from any personal attacks and focussed on the policy. Friends say this was as good as sign as any that he is serious about the top job. After all, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold. This is not to say that Boris is a shoo-in. His biggest barrier to the top job is getting through to the final two of any leadership contest.
But if he does continue to enjoy a renaissance among Tory members – and all the signs point to this – Tory MPs will feel under pressure to listen to their associations and put him on the ballot. If the Conservative party has a leadership contest with a choice of two remainers, there’d be a mighty backlash. Several Tory associations report new Eurosceptic members joining. The thinking is these are people expecting a leadership contest soon and want to be able to vote in it.
It’s also the case that the party may reluctantly come to accept what they need rather than what they want. As one wise soul – well versed in the intricacies of the Tory party – once explained: ‘The Tory party will only turn to Boris when it is three-nil down and there are only 15 minutes to go.’ There are still plenty of reasons to question how well it would play out when he got there – for starters, there would still be no Conservative majority and Remain Tory MPs may feel more reason to rebel with a Brexiteer at the helm. But unless Theresa May can turn things around, her disaster could be Johnson’s opportunity to come off the bench and play the role he has always dreamed of.