James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
In my column last week, I suggested the Conservatives should make Boris Johnson Conservative leader and Prime Minister by acclamation – as soon as the party is ready to fight another election. There wasn’t the space to elaborate, so I do so today. There are four big reasons why.
Firstly, he’s a rock star who appeals to those who don’t normally vote Conservative. The idea he’s now an irretrievably divisive figure is wrong: anyone who took a public role in the referendum is inherently divisive. Taking on the more general role of Prime Minister – where there’ll be a lot more to discuss than Europe – would give him the sort of broad platform he used to great effect as London Mayor.
Regardless, new polling shows he’s still the public’s top choice for the next Conservative leader – significantly higher than Ruth Davidson in second and much higher than David Davis in third. While he’s a narrow second choice amongst Labour voters, he leads amongst 18-24 year olds, women, C2DE voters, Northerners and Londoners.
While he’s a narrow second choice amongst Labour voters, he leads amongst 18-24 year olds, women, C2DE voters, Northerners and Londoners.
Secondly, and crucially after this month’s debacle, he’s a proven campaigner. Johnson beat Livingstone and his formidable London machine twice in a city that’s not always kind to Conservatives. And he physically dragged Vote Leave over the line last summer. He’s a born retail politician in the mould of the best American politicians – energetic, enthusiastic and brilliant at off-the-cuff communication. He’s incredibly disciplined while looking unscripted – a very rare mix.
Thirdly, he’s got the right character to lead. In the nicest possible sense of the term, Johnson is hard as nails. He has put up with an incredible amount of personal attacks over the years and just keeps moving forward. Refreshingly, he also doesn’t bear grudges and is able to re-build apparently broken relationships. With a party divided and angry, this is going to be vital. The Conservatives need a broad cabinet including talented people that Theresa May sidelined, like Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove.
Fourthly, he’s got a vision for Britain outside the EU. Being a eurosceptic isn’t a prerequisite for leader – but having a vision for Britain outside is. Theresa May gave one encouraging speech on Britain’s role outside the EU but said little after. Johnson has been thinking and talking about Britain’s role for years and is in a position to execute the sort of global pivot that Britain needs.
After I argued that he should be made leader and Prime Minister by acclamation, a number of people I respect got in touch to say I’m wrong and that acclamation is a bad idea. I am wholly sympathetic to this view – that the best candidates should be tested. However, on balance, I believe two or three months’ campaigning, with senior Tories damaging each other’s ratings, would be suicidal when a new general election might be around the corner. So the Conservatives should learn the lessons of the recent near-defeat, start announcing some popular policies, and prepare to make the change.
More broadly, it’s obvious Boris isn’t perfect. He doesn’t always prepare for serious interviews well and he relies too much on cleverness and charm to communicate, rather than the hard graft of learning stuff. And the whole eccentric toff thing can be tiring. But he’s the most talented politician the Conservatives have got. Corbyn’s Labour would be far more nervous about facing him than any of the alternatives.