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What Boris Johnson’s leadership push tells us about the state of the Tory party

Conservative MP and leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson leaves his London home. Picture: Getty Images. - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Three years after reminding us of his legacy as a liberal and unifying Conservative, 2019 Boris Johnson is relying on his hard-right influences.

The last Conservative leadership contest feels like it was a lot longer than three years ago. In that race, one of the favoured candidates for the top post gave a speech speaking as a “One Nation” Conservative who understood the need to heal a divided country.

“It is vital now in the Conservative Party that we bring together everybody who campaigned so hard both for the Remain or the Leave sides,” this politician said. “I’d like see the most talented and capable men and women in our party uniting to take the country forward.”

There was more. The speech praised gay marriage, spoke of the need for a “sensible, moderate” Conservatism building on “the great reforming legacy of David Cameron”. It even spoke of the need to “re-launch our commitment to Europe” during the Brexit process.

And yet the would-be-candidate who made that speech was actually withdrawing himself from the race – as it was none other than Boris Johnson.

His campaign had imploded in flames before it even began, as Michael Gove decided that rather than play a role as Johnson’s key ally, he would instead betray his onetime friend at the last minute and stand for leader himself.

Johnson’s tone at the time might have been emollient, that of a unifier, but Conservative MPs refused to buy it: once Gove had declared himself unsure that Johnson had the qualities to unify a Conservative government working on a slim majority – remember when they had a slim majority? – others followed suit, with Nick Boles and Dominic Raab switching camps alongside Gove.

Rivals in the party noted the dramatic irony of Johnson being knifed by Gove: both men known for their ambition, having come into politics after journalistic careers and having worked with one another hand-in-glove during the Brexit campaign, only to turn on each other and ruin the leadership chances of either of them.

Boris Johnson had written an ostensibly moderate, traditional, unifying pitch to be the leader of the party, and his colleagues in parliament had refused to believe it – instead, eventually, turning to a woman they believed could be a safe pair of hands: Theresa May.

And after her outright failure to unite the party, let alone the country or the continent, they appear to be turning to Boris Johnson once again. What kind of steady-handed behaviour and political skill has he demonstrated in the meantime to secure such confidence, where once it was lacking?

Johnson could certainly claim that his CV on paper is stronger than it was before: in 2019, unlike 2016, he can now boast of having served as foreign secretary – one of the most senior cabinet roles and a major responsibility for anyone to bear, especially during a period such as Brexit.

Anyone paying attention to the small print may notice that two of the most important aspects of the role – dealing with Brexit and international trade – had been siphoned away into other roles, but Johnson could be forgiven for not expecting that level of scrutiny from his parliamentary colleagues.

If he were worried about their political memories, Johnson might also be concerned that his frequent gaffes as foreign secretary – the UK’s most senior diplomat – might also speak poorly of his record, especially as one was cited by Iran as a reason for keeping British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in custody, extending her sentence, something for which he has never apologised.

Johnson’s exit from the cabinet was not one covered in glory, either. The foreign secretary had been one of the key cabinet ministers signing off on the rough outline of the PM’s plan to exit the EU months before his resignation – where the principle, if not the details, of the backstop were agreed.

He continued to serve in the cabinet for months after this point while the small print was agreed, until May finally presented the finalised deal to her cabinet at a make-or-break meeting at her Chequers country retreat. Johnson, 
like all the rest of the cabinet, signed off on the deal. A day later, he felt differently: despite having agreed on the principle of the deal months before, and the letter of it after an extensive and hours-long meeting a day before, he suddenly felt unable to stay in the government and work to support May’s deal, for reasons of deep-seated principle that surely had nothing to do with the fact his colleague David Davis had resigned a few hours before and the foreign secretary did not wish to be outflanked on Brexit.

From the backbenchers, Johnson dedicated himself to public service by immediately resuming his £275,000-a-year role as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph – a rate that works out at around £5-a-word. For this monumental sum, he put out new Brexit plans, which were immediately debunked, and a claim polling showed no-deal was winning in the polls, which the newspaper later had to correct.

This is what Johnson has spent the three years since the last Conservative leadership contest doing. Could this be the track record that has convinced his colleagues he has gone from someone unfit for leadership to the dominating favourite, at a time when the challenges of the premiership are perhaps at their greatest since the Second World War?

If this seems a stretch, then we should consider that maybe this time Johnson is making an even more bold and brave series of proposals to reunite the nation, heal the divide between Leavers and Remainers, and restore the popularity of the Conservative Party.

His advisors certainly seem to be running his campaign more carefully this time: Johnson has done barely any interviews, has hardly been seen in public, and is clearly on close watch against gaffes. But those hoping this PR push has been accompanied by a sincere, policy-backed version of Johnson’s 2016 rhetoric are in for a huge disappointment.

Johnson has decided that there is a group of 1.3 million people in the country who are struggling so hard that they are clearly in need of more help from the government – and he’s found £6,000 a year for each and every one of them, taken from their income tax payment.

But the group he has targeted for this are not unemployed people, or those living on disability living allowance: he’s picked those earning £80,000 or more a year, the richest 4% of the country. Alongside that, he’s pledged to use the money put aside for no-deal to fund it, while saying he’s happy to leave with no-deal, and says he will not extend Brexit.

In other words, Boris Johnson is selling off our parachute just as he plans to kick us out of the plane.

Johnson’s public pronouncements are so dangerous and so unpopular with the public that his allies are quietly using this as a weapon to win over moderates. No-one thinks he’ll ever actually do this, they say. It’s obviously political (or economic) suicide, they say. Let’s just get him in place, and then he’ll be far more moderate.

Conservative MPs may wish to note that this was exactly the message many backers of Donald Trump made to garner support for the man who is now US president, and come to their own conclusions.

Boris Johnson tried to remind everyone of his legacy as a unifying and liberal Conservative in 2016. In 2019, he is relying on his strongest hard-right influences, and making an outright populist appeal to promise the impossible, even as everyone around him is fully aware it would be impossible to deliver without causing disaster.

That the second sales pitch is working better than the first says far too much about the current state of the UK’s ruling party.

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