06 October 2012

The Boris Factor

Unusually, this year's Tory Conference contains the only speech I want to watch. And it will be by Boris Johnson (or in fact they will be by Boris, as I think he's speaking twice).

Could Boris Johnson be the next Tory leader? It seems rather unlikely, but not impossible. I'd suggest that yes it could happen, but only under rather specific circumstances.

I think what would have to happen for Boris to be leader is that the Tories would have to lose heavily in 2015. It wouldn't have to be quite 1997 proportions but I think Ed would have to be in Downing Street with a majority of maybe 70 or more, and a substantial vote lead over the Tories - maybe  5 or 6 percent at least.

The more the Tories lose by, the more damaged are the inner circle of Cameron confidantes who would be the favoured successors if Cameron were to win, and step down (say) halfway through a second term. Osborne, Gove and Hunt are probably the most obvious future leadership contenders on the "inside". And I think if there is a controlled handover on Cameron's own terms (i.e. after a win), Boris wouldn't have much of a chance. If Cameron loses narrowly - perhaps a hung parliament followed by a Lab-Lib coalition or a small Labour majority as occurred in 1964 or 1974 - one of the 'inner circle' could still take over as they could argue the defeat was a matter of nuance or circumstance rather than fundamental strategic errors.

But if the Tories went down by a big margin, I think the 'inner circle' would fall down with Cameron - because there would a mood for change. I could be wrong about that... there's a possibility that Mickey Gove, in particular, might be a slippery enough character to come out of the whole episode smelling of roses. But in any case, a big Tory defeat would give Boris an opportunity  to take over, on the assumption he gets into a safe Tory seat in the 2015 election - although he'd still have to muster enough votes among Tory MPs to come no lower than second out of three, thus going forward to the decisive ballot of party members. As I have no idea what the "lay of the land" is with regards to Boris's popularity with Tory party members, I won't speculate on this issue.

There is always the possibility that one of the new 2010 hard-right intake - e.g. Dominic Raab, or the appalling Priti Patel - could mount a 2015 leadership challenge, but I think they'd struggle to match Boris's exposure or charisma. On the other hand the Tory leadership contest has a habit of favouring the outside runners. Few people would have said after the February 1974 election that Margaret Thatcher would be the next Tory leader; likewise after the 2005 election few would have said Dave Cameron was next for the hot seat. It's a funny thing.

You also can't rule out Liam Fox, who would probably stand on a hard-right ticket, but I sort of feel that if Fox was going to make his mark, 2005 was the time to do it, and he's rather old hat now. Likewise David Davis (any of you kids remember "Modern Conservatives?" Ho ho.

So that's the most hopeful scenario for Boris Johnson: that the party turns to him as the new messiah after the failure of Cameron. And it could happen; but I don't see it as a certainty, or even the most probable outcome.

The other scenario that is cooked up (largely by the media) is that Boris will somehow be drafted into Parliament before 2015, challenge Cameron for the leadership and defeat him, and then lead the Tories into the 2015 election as PM. If this could happen it represents (in my view) the Tories' only serious chance of winning with Boris at the helm; I don't think he would have the application to graft away as opposition leader for 5 years were he to get the job after the election, and I think the Tories would perform badly in 2020 with him as leader (unless Labour were so catastrophically bad that any idiot could win against them),  regardless of his personal popularity. But if he took over 6 months away from an election he might be able to win via the honeymoon effect, a media frenzy, and his natural talent for comedy.

I do think this is staggeringly unlikely, though. At the moment, rumblings of discontent against Cameron seem to be confined to malcontents such as Nadine Dorries. Looking at the polls, Cameron is still an asset to the Tories - albeit not such a huge one anymore; he's been increasingly rumbled a proportion of the electorate as a bullshitter, a bully and a liar but can still do the Tony Blair smoothie thing well enough to get by - for now. Dave would have to be significantly less popular than the Tory party to trigger a leadership election; he'd actually have to be perceived as a significant drag on their electability (remember Mrs T in 1990, or IDS in 2003). And that seems vanishingly unlikely. Nope, I reckon Dave's safe until the election. In fact I think all three main parties will go into the election with current leadership. In any case, the mechanics of installing Boris into the House of Commons with a substantial proportion of his London mayoral term still left would look extremely dodgy. Boris getting a seat in the 2015 election - with one year of his term still to go - is probably just about OK. But before that? It would look preposterous.

So, I think there is a lot of hype and not so much substance behind the idea of the "Boris Factor" - although it is not a complete fiction. That said, I will still be intrigued to see just how Boris plays Tory conference; he will probably want to make Dave look a bit small and insignificant without appearing openly disloyal. and his speech(es) will probably be comedy classic(s).


Hal Berstram said...

At the Observer website There's http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/07/should-it-be-cameron-or-johnson of leading Tory commentators on the question of whether it should be Dave or Boris in 2015. I agree with Tim Montgomerie that Dave is pretty much safe for 2015 but I'd love to hear more about Boris's "optimistic, big vision Conservatism" as it strikes me Boris is making it up as he goes along (not necessarily a problem... the Tories have historically done pretty well with a seat-of-the-pants strategy for long periods).

Tellingly, only one of the commentators says there is any real chance that Boris is going to take over before 2015 - and that's Sonia Purnell, Boris's biographer, who arguably has a vested interest in talking him up (big selling 2nd edition of the biog, anybody?)

Unusually, Norman Tebbit perhaps puts it best:
"Were there to be a change in party leadership in the near future, fond as I am of Boris and much as I admire him, I do not see him as the man to run government in No 10."

Van Patten said...

I think it highly unlikely that Boris would come in before 2015. They'll stand pat for now, possibly try to cosy up to UKIP in the hope of shoring up support in the South East/ South West. We might see moves to fast track Scottish independence on the QT.

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