Boris Johnson is currently the quiet man of the Tory leadership contest, lurking in the shadows rather than courting media attention as he usually does. His campaign team has deliberately held him back from touring the studios to avoid gaffes or rows. They’re even nervous about the limited exposure he has, joking that he is ‘always one Monday column away from disaster’. Of course, it’s easier to do this when your candidate has as high a profile as Johnson: he doesn’t really need any more attention than he’s already got.
It is, though, not the greatest of compliments from those members of his campaign team that they seem to feel Johnson cannot be trusted not to cause a career-damaging row when the stakes are so high. Could they really maintain the same level of control over Johnson if he made it to Downing Street, shutting him away from press conferences and only allowing him to emerge to ruffle his hair in an endearing fashion?
What is stranger than this lack of confidence in Johnson from his own team is the failure of the other candidates to exploit his many weaknesses. Each has been so focused on ensuring they are number two on the ballot paper that they have avoided talking much about the man everyone assumes will be number one. This has meant there is as yet no narrative about Johnson not being a very impressive Foreign Secretary, or about whether he stands for the sort of policies that will win over swing voters who are struggling to manage. He has so far been given a free pass.
That changed a little today, with all the campaign launches overshadowed a little by a hulking Boris-shaped silhouette. Each candidate took a shot at the ex Mayor of London in their own way: Matt Hancock said he would only cut taxes when the country could afford it, Dominic Raab said Brexit couldn’t be delivered ‘with bluff and bluster’, and Michael Gove made a number of attacks on Johnson, including his joke urging him not to ‘pull out’.
All of them clearly assume that they would be facing Johnson were they to make the final two. But it will be too late by that stage in the contest to start making members nervous about the prospect of a Johnson premiership. His rivals need to be sowing doubt about his ability to run the country right now, and they can’t wait for him to go on the television and do that himself.