If Boris Johnson announces that he wants to return to the Commons in 2015, the news will be written up as indicating that he believes David Cameron will lose – and that the Mayor is limbering up to have a crack at the Conservative leadership. And some indications from Boris’s camp suggest that he doesn’t want a third mayoralty term, and is therefore more likely to stand at the next election than not. Downing Street must thus try to handle any such proclamation by Boris in such a way as to minimise any political damage that it may inflict.
As I’ve written previously, that means getting the whole business done and dusted by October’s party conference. The choreography would be roughly as follows. In the early summer, after the Euro-elections are out of the way, Boris would make his intentions known. On the record, the Prime Minister would grit his teeth, and say that the Mayor is absolutely splendid, first-rate, a priceless asset to the Party – and is needed back in the Commons as soon as possible. Off the record, Number Ten would brief that, in any second Cameron-led Government, Boris would be appointed Secretary of State for B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S.*
By the late summer, a convenient constituency retirement would be found in Chuffnell Poges or Belgravia West, and Boris would be selected as a replacement almost nem con. The two men would then be able to present a united front at the conference, or as near to one as it is possible to contrive. Such an outcome is more or less the substance of the splash in today’s Times (£), the headline of which reads “Cameron urges Boris to run for Parliament”. According to Francis Elliott, the paper’s Political Editor (and a biographer of the Prime Minister), “Boris Johnson is being urged by allies of David Cameron to fight the next election as a Conservative candidate”.
George Osborne is apparently “said to have delivered personally the message that Mr Johnson should run, in what will be seen as an attempt to call his bluff”. The story speculates that the Mayor could return in his former seat of Henley, or that as an alternative he could become Party Chairman – an indication that, during the election campaign, Cameron needs the Heineken-like Mayor who reaches the voters that other politicians cannot reach. The Chancellor, who has leadership aspirations of his own, is woven through the Times story. The desirability of Boris’s return to the front line is claimed to be “Mr Osborne’s view”.
It may indeed be that the Chancellor has concluded that, since he would rather be a senior Minister in a second Cameron-led Government than Leader of the Opposition for five long years, the Mayor’s return is necessary to help maximise that possibility. But whether this or so or not, a Boris return in 2015 is win-win for the Party. If Cameron leads the Government after the election, the Mayor should bring the experience of housing and transport he has gained in London to the Cabinet table: he has, after all, twice won the biggest personal mandate from voters of any British politician. And if Cameron loses, Boris should have the opportunity to put his case for the leadership.
The alternative course that the Mayor could take – since he clearly has his eye on that prize – is to sit the next election out, wait for the outcome, and try to talk a Conservative MP into standing down and creating a Boris-friendly vacancy if the Tories lose. Such a refusal to pitch in with the present leadership would have three negative consequences. First, it would rob the Party of his full campaigning talents before 2015. Second, it would deprive the Cabinet of his abilities after it if his calculation is wrong, and Cameron returns as Prime Minister for a second term. Finally, he would risk shutting himself out of a leadership contest if Cameron is indeed unsuccessful in 2015.
His supporters in the Party and the press would claim that it therefore lacked legitimacy. And though there don’t seem to be many in the Commons, there are lots among the members: the Mayor has polled either first or second among them in every post-Cameron leadership poll this site has ever conducted. These are possibility best avoided. Boris should stand for the Commons in 2015. A footnote: were I the Prime Minister, I would steer clear of appointing Boris as Party Chairman. The move would be an invitation to consider CCHQ a separate power base from Number Ten.
* Business, Industrial Strategy, Cities, Universities, Infrastructure, Transport and Skills.