There will be sighs of relief in the Boris Johnson camp this evening after Jeremy Hunt won the second spot on the members’ ballot. It’s no great secret that the Foreign Secretary was Johnson’s preferred opponent. Boris allies were concerned that a contest against a candidate like Michael Gove (or, worse still, Rory Stewart) could be bruising and rather hostile. With Gove a very able debater, Johnson would likely have been pressed on the Brexit detail on a nightly basis. Even Jeremy Hunt’s allies appear to admit he is an easier candidate to go up against. Ahead of the final vote sources close to the Hunt campaign were warning that a Gove/Boris final would amount to a ‘psychodrama’.
However, the result has also led to whisperings of tactical voting in certain quarters. This is because in the first ballot of the day Gove overtook Hunt for the first time – though only by a couple of votes. Some Hunt supporters were despondent after this and expected defeat later on. After Sajid Javid was knocked out, five of his supporters publicly announced that they would move their vote to Boris Johnson. Yet somehow Boris Johnson only went up by three votes over the course of the two rounds. A number of MPs are suggesting that the Johnson campaign conducted tactical voting – with Johnson supporters lending votes to Hunt to ensure an easier final. With Gavin Williamson – the former chief whip – at the forefront of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary operation, many are crediting (others cursing) him for the result.
So, is prime minister Johnson now inevitable? It certainly would take a catastrophe on the Johnson side to lose it at this stage. Hunt allies are keen to press the idea that the Foreign Secretary will surprise in the hustings and give Johnson a run for his money. Coffee House understands that Lynton Crosby will be advising Boris Johnson on the membership stage of the contest. Up until now, Johnson has eschewed multiple media appearances with a safety first strategy. His campaign team were keen to prove to MPs that Johnson was a serious politician rather than just a personality politician. They may now conclude he is able to speak more freely.