Magazine article The Spectator

Everyone's out to Get Boris Johnson

Magazine article The Spectator

Everyone's out to Get Boris Johnson

Article excerpt

The Tory leadership contest is starting with an attempted assassination

There is nowhere better to plot than the Palace of Westminster. There are alcoves to conspire in, little-used corridors and discreet watering holes. And no group enjoys plotting more than Tory MPs. Add a general election result that made the Tory leader a lame duck and you have the perfect ingredients for political mischief. But the Tories aren't just plotting against Theresa May -- that would be too simple, since her departure is a question of when not if. Nor is the principal conversation about who the leader should be. No, for a Tory the first stages of any leader-ship battle is to identify who they don't want and then to set about destroying them.

No one is more plotted against than Boris Johnson. When I asked one well-connected minister who he was backing for leader, he replied, 'Whoever will stop Boris getting into the final two.' The Foreign Secretary's detractors in parliament -- there is no shortage of them -- are determined to leave nothing to chance. Tory party rules mean the final two candidates must fight a campaign among the members in the country, which would suit Boris's campaigning style. So they intend to stop him long before it gets to that stage.

Since the election, Tory MPs don't agree on much. Yet there is near unanimity on the need to avoid another general election any time soon. 'One thing the cabinet is united on is that if she wasn't there and there was an election, say in a year's time, we'd lose,' one Secretary of State tells me. The belief that going back to the polls would be a disaster for the Tories is what is keeping May in place. Patience with her is limited, though, and the party's conference in October is being seen as a deadline. A well-placed source tells me, 'If there's no timetable at conference it will wind people up. People want an indication of when she's going.'

The holding answer as to when May will quit is when the Article 50 deal is done, so sometime by March 2019. The feeling is that this is a logical end-point to her premiership, preventing a Tory leadership contest where Brexit could render the party asunder, and suiting nearly all of the leadership contenders, Boris included.

However, there are renewed doubts in the party hierarchy that May can last until then. The idea of senior members of the cabinet agreeing on the right successor to May is taking hold again. But it's hard to see Philip Hammond, David Davis, Amber Rudd and Boris Johnson reaching any agreement. It's always possible that events -- or the party conference in October -- will thrust a hitherto underestimated candidate on to the centre stage.

David Davis is one senior member of the cabinet who would be acutely disadvantaged if the leadership contest didn't take place for another two years. The 68 year-old is currently the Brexit secretary, and in any contest in the near future could present himself as the candidate best placed to hit the ground running. But once the negotiation's finished, the rationale for his candidacy is diminished. May's closest allies are desperately trying to work out just how significant it is that his friends, notably Andrew Mitchell, are on manoeuvres. One Downing Street source tells me, 'Davis and Mitchell are as close as you get to a genuine friendship in politics. So the fact he's doing it does worry me.'

The case for May going sooner rather than later is that she is too weak to do the Brexit negotiations. The European Union, aware of her domestic troubles, will try to push her around. Her threat to walk away is no longer credible and so the chances of a bad deal have increased. If Brexit goes wrong, the Tory party will be held responsible, and will suffer a defeat worse even than the 1997 general election. It is also said that as long as May remains, there can be no Tory recovery or renewal. The party is stuck in a holding pattern while Jeremy Corbyn's momentum goes unchecked. …

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