June 05, 2019
Let’s talk about Boris
We are full of admiration for the sporting spirit of the British media. But leadership race feels to us like a bit of a misnomer for what is currently dominating Tory and UK politics. It is not really a race. It may not even be a competition. Boris Johnson has been in pole position from the start, and he is now building on his lead.
The Times has a story this morning that three Remain-supporting Tory junior ministers are supporting Johnson. They said that he is the only candidate who can save the party from extinction. Self-preservation - not Brexit - has suddenly become the main issue for the Tories. Johnson is the only candidate with a chance to defeat Jeremy Corbyn in a general election. MPs have strong views on Brexit. But they have even stronger views on the importance of holding their own seats. They are supporting the leader most likely to ensure their political survival.
This also means that they need to support the candidate best-placed to defeat Nigel Farage, too. The main effect of Farage on British politics is not his own election results, but his impact on the Tories. It is possible that the Brexit party could stage an upset in tomorrow’s by-election in the town of Peterborough in the East of England. The seat became vacant after the criminal conviction of a former Labour MP. If the Tories fail to deliver Brexit before the next election, they face the threat of near-total elimination, close to what they experienced in the recent European elections.
Like Farage, Johnson draws on the benefit of a simple message. Farage frames the argument as one of Brexit versus betrayal. For Johnson it is a choice between Brexit and the extinction of the Tory party. This is why we see the chance of a no-deal Brexit as very high. We do not see the EU willing or able to renegotiate the Brexit agreement, especially not the offending Irish backstop.
Is it possible, as some people suggest, that Johnson might do a Nixon-in-China U-turn, and support a second referendum? On this point we would like to point to the excellent column by Daniel Finkelstein in the Times this morning. He noted that the Nixon-in-China metaphor manages to misrepresent both Nixon and China simultaneously. And it won’t work in this case either. If you elected Boris...
"...[w]hat you see is what you are going to get. Expect the expected. You are going to be surprised by how unsurprised you are."
Events might still intrude. Accidents can happen. But they haven’t so far. The whole stop-Boris campaign some MPs talked about never made sense to us because of the way the vote is structured. Starting Thursday next week, MPs will vote for a shortlist of two candidates in four elimination rounds. The remaining three votes will take place June 18, 19 and 20. Johnson has so far received public endorsements by forty MPs, which will be enough to get him into the third round of voting. Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt have twenty-six each.
Tory members will then choose one of the two from the shortlist. We know that Johnson is the strong favourite among the party faithful. If he were to drop out for some reason, we expect the winner to be one of the other Brexiteers - Dominique Raab for instance. We doubt that Tories will vote for Gove, given his support for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. A recent story in the Daily Telegraph claimed Gove proposed a Brexit extension until 2020 in a cabinet meeting. That makes him essentially unelectable in view of the Farage threat. We cannot see the Tories voting for any candidate who fails to deliver Brexit before general elections. And these might arrive early, given the narrow majority in the House of Commons.