The neighbours may have taken against him and the headlines are regularly hostile, but it seems there is no stopping Boris Johnson getting the keys to Downing Street.
The latest polling from the influential and usually well-informed website ConservativeHome puts the calamity-prone Tory leadership candidate on 66% of members’ support to his rival Jeremy Hunt’s 30%, suggesting Johnson’s recent bad press about a domestic argument with his partner has had little impact.
Now that the focus of debate has returned to Brexit, the contest is Johnson’s to lose. The former Foreign Secretary and mayor of London Mayor regularly flirts with self-destruction, but he is a far cannier politician than his critics give him credit for. His bumbling, “um, err, phwoar” style is for many the perfect antidote to the smooth smarm of Blair and Cameron, or the soulless managerial approach of May. What for some might be offensive gaffes are for others an endearing frankness that has made him the only immediately recognisable political figure, known only by his first name.
The party membership is throwing its support behind the most unpredictable of politicians because they know they faces a double threat from the most left-wing leader in Labour’s history and a failure of the next Tory Prime Minister to deliver Brexit, which would see the Brexit Party eat them alive in their heartlands and pave the way to a Corbyn government.
Only two things can change this outcome: a Conservative Prime Minister who delivers Brexit on time or, in the event of a general election, the Brexit Party does more damage to supposedly safe Labour seats in the North and becomes king-maker. The leadership election gives party members a say in the former and this is why Hunt – by not promising to leave on 31 October, deal or no deal – is behind in the polls.
The current Foreign Secretary does seem to have the support of Scotland’s Tories. In Westminster, only Ross Thomson, Andrew Bowie, Douglas Ross and Colin Clark are backing Johnson. The Whip Alister Jack is precluded from declaring his preference.
Amongst the Conservative MSPs at Holyrood Margaret Mitchell was the only MSP who backed leaving the EU in the referendum. So, not surprisingly, she is now the only one supporting Boris Johnson. Indeed the Tory group has been a regular source of pejorative comment towards Johnson over recent years, with Ruth Davidson and her deputy, Jackson Carlaw both making clear their distaste for his views or the manner in which he communicates them.
But even if all the Scottish Tories back Hunt it would not be enough to change the outcome in his favour. Davidson in particular is going for an inglorious hat-trick, having first backed Sajid Javid, then supporting Michael Gove and now backing Hunt. With a record like that Johnson might be pleased not to have her shoulder behind him.
While Johnson’s destiny seems assured, his unwillingness to explain exactly how he will deliver Brexit on its due date at the end of October creates equal measures of anxiety in Tory remainers and arch-Brexiteers. The former accuse him of ignorant bluster that is creating false expectations that cannot be met and must end in disaster. The latter ask themselves if they can fully trust him after he finally voted for May’s Withdrawal Agreement when he thought failure to do so would halt Brexit altogether.
The more likely explanation is that Johnson simply does not wish to show his hand to the EU; that he believes that eventually hard reality will bring some compromises from the EU, and if it is not forthcoming leaving without a deal is politically the better option. This surely is evidenced by his signalling that only those ministers willing to leave the EU without a deal will have a place in his Cabinet if he becomes PM. This is wholly different from Hunt, who looks increasingly like a continuity May candidate.
Both candidates have spoken enthusiastically of cutting taxes to encourage greater economic activity, particularly if there is “no deal”. I would caution reading too much into what has been offered so far. Promises of tax cuts may have appealed to MPs who decided the short list of two, and now to party members who will have the final say. But the new PM’s economic policies will play to an altogether different constituency – the public. The candidate most likely to win over Labour Leave voters with a canny Brexit Bounce is far more likely to defeat Corbyn.
So long as there is a possibility of either figure letting Brexit slide beyond Halloween then Nigel Farage will be ready to pounce. And that is what is focusing the minds of both candidates.
Brian Monteith is an MEP for the Brexit Party in North East England