At the hustings held by the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs this evening, the question wasn’t who was going to win but who should be sent to put Boris Johnson through his paces before he wins. Word is that Team Boris is lending about 15 votes to Jeremy Hunt, who he’d most like to go up against – either today, or in later voting rounds. Boris is understood to have over 120 supporters now – more than the next three put together – so he could lend 40 votes to Hunt if he wanted. But he is more likely to keep the number low so the vote-lending isn’t obvious. There’s even talk that he’ll win by such a big majority that no other candidate would get above the 33 l-vote threshold today. It’s possible. But deeply unlikely.
One MP who was at the hustings tells me that Sajid Javid made an interesting case for continuing the race: that it’s a chance not to defeat Boris (pretty much all MPs think this is now impossible) but get him match fit. He said – in so many words – that Boris will win in the end. So the party should now ask: who to send up against him? What kind of race will make the party look better in the eyes of the public?
The drawbacks of a Rory vs Boris is clear: it will look like the Eton wall game by other means. A duel between two Etonians who went to the same Oxford college (Balliol): but who did board at different houses at Eton: a very Tory notion of diversity. And while Rory might please Tory Remainers, he stands not much hope amongst the 160,000 Tory members. A recent YouGov poll of these members underlined this: when asked who’d make a good leader they answered Boris (77%), Raab (68%), Javid (61%), Hunt (56%) Gove (50%) and lowest came Rod Stewart (to use his real name) at 31%.
The MPs could choose Michael Gove, perhaps the candidate Boris wants the least. But these two would tear each other to shreds, like a married couple who know each other’s vulnerabilities all too well. Not much might be left by either of them by the end. And again, what would this say about Tory diversity? Two Oxford Union debating club alumnus seeking to parlay their verbal dexterity into a ticket to No10?
Anyway, this is how the Sajid Javid argument runs. He pitches himself as the embodiment of modern Britain, with both his background and his agenda and finished by saying that he would (in effect) give the likely Prime Minister a workout rather than a character assassination. He closed his speech by saying he’d “make a better Boris”. An odd campaign slogan, but this is an odd election.