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Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of John O’Sullivan, Rachel Wolf, Trevor Phillips, Tim Montgomerie and Marcus Roberts will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the leadership election.

Marcus Roberts

“Conservatives who oppose No Deal may be a smaller part of the Conservative coalition but they are an important element nonetheless. It is by no means certain that they will cleave to the Conservatives at a pre-Brexit General Election.”

As Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt compete to prove their Brexit party-attracting credentials, it’s all too easy to forget that the Conservatives don’t just have a Leaver problem, they have a Remainer headache too. Let’s consider the nature of this problem.

We begin with the fact that the Conservatives already lost a lot of Remainers at the 2017 general election.

In total just 71 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2015 and then Remain in 2016 stayed with the Tories in 2017 (the Leave number in comparison was 90 per cent). Of their Remainer defectors, 17 per cent went to Labour, and a further 10 per cent went to the Lib Dems.

This means that, at that election, their voter base was 71 per cent Leave, 29 per cent Remain.

This Remainer loss goes someway to explaining the loss of the Cameron majority in seats like Canterbury and Kensington.

Next let’s consider the composition of Tory defectors. Since 2017, the Conservatives have continued to lose Remain voters at roughly the same rate as they have lost Leave voters. The Conservatives have lost nearly half their Remain support to date shifting from 25 per cent support amongst Remain voters in 2017 to 13 per cent currently.

In comparison, their Leave number has fallen from 65 per cent in 2017 to 31 per cent currently.

However, the drop amongst Leave voters has had a much larger impact on their total vote share because there are more than twice as as many of them.

Interestingly enough, in both cases this is almost an exact mirror image of what has happened to Labour.

As to what Conservative voters want, YouGov’s MRP model towards the end of last year showed that 2017 Tory Remainers still mostly backed Remain as their first preference with 60 per cent of Conservative Remainers favouring Remain, 33 per cent a Deal and only seven per cent preferring No Deal.

And it is this final point, when viewed in the context of the 2017 fallout, that should be ringing alarm bells in CCHQ as they wargame a No Deal general election.

No Deal Tories are making the dangerous mistake of presuming that Conservative voters will back No Deal en masse. As the noted psephologist Dr. Ian Warren has observed, there are nearly two million Tory Remainers in the South of England and “No Deal is a toxic emblem to those voters, a reminder of what’s under threat.”

Conservatives who oppose No-Deal may be a smaller part of the Conservative coalition but they are an important element nonetheless. It is by no means certain that they will cleave to the Conservatives at a pre-Brexit General Election should the leadership embrace No-Deal.

Simply put, come a snap general election, what the Conservatives may gain from Leavers through No Deal may well cost them dearly with their own Remainers.

Tim Montgomerie

“I understand why Boris was reluctant to comment on his private life but I know what Donald Trump would have done – and it’s what Boris should have done. He would have gone on the attack.”

Yesterday’s ConservativeHome survey of Tory grassroots members suggests that Boris Johnson has weathered the four day media storm over the fact he spilled red wine on his girlfriend’s sofa and that his girlfriend was less than impressed. I’m slightly oversimplifying the story but not by that much. Over those four days we probably didn’t learn a great deal about Boris Johnson, Carrie Symonds or their romantic relationship. We did, however, learn a great deal about the Westminster media village and its attitude to the man who will almost certainly become the next Tory leader and our PM. It is hostile. Very hostile.

Front page after front page. TV news segment after TV news segment. Blog after blog. Social media storm after social media storm. The coverage was intense and despite the police establishing that the couple were safe and well on the night that their row took place, net curtain twitching in the media reached defcon one more quickly than the moral crusader Mary Whitehouse ever managed to master in more censorious times. The modern media’s rule that politicians’ private lives should remain private was broken in almost every conceivable way. There was little to no presumption of innocence in a hopeful rush to find Boris guilty of some small or great misbehaviour. While any form of domestic violence should be treated as a very serious and career-ending matter, accusations and hints of domestic violence against innocent men and women are also serious.

I understand why Boris was reluctant to comment on his private life but – while America’s 45th President is not always worthy of emulation – I know what Donald Trump would have done and it’s what Boris should have done. He would have gone on the attack. “The fake news media hate me. They want to talk about my private life. I want to talk about building a wall across our southern border, cutting taxes and putting good judges in our courts. CNN hates me but I will make America great again and LEAVE MELANIA ALONE!!!” Or something like that.

Boris Johnson has 613,000 followers on Twitter, and while that’s a lot more than almost every other Conservative in Britain (May has 863K and Cameron has 1.9 million), it should be a lot more. In contrast to Jeremy Hunt (who uses Twitter engagingly) Boris’ account exhibits none of his personality at present. Every Tweet reads like it has been written by a press officer.

That needs to change because social media has become a huge mobiliser of public opinion and Tory weakness on both Twitter and especially Facebook helped explain Labour’s much stronger-than-expected performance at the 2017 general election. There will be other times when the media pack will not give a Johnson administration the unit of any doubt. Twitter is Boris’ way of communicating above the heads of the media and directly to his fans and supporters.

I played a role in getting David Cameron on to Twitter when I edited this site and I’d love Boris to start Tweeting properly too. One final word of warning on the subject, however: Handle Twitter in the same way you should handle lightly-coloured sofas: do not mix either with red wine! Danger can quickly follow…

John O’Sullivan

“If most Tories want the contest to be over, they are even keener that if it must continue, it should do so in a gentlemanly fashion that damages neither contestant. Hunt calling Boris cowardly hardly fits that bill.”

My sense of the leadership contest now that we have it boiled down to Jeremy Hunt versus Boris Johnson is that it’s the most colossal bore. Almost everybody believes that Boris has it in the bag because the Tory activists are determined to have him and Brexit both. But the game has to continue to the end on 22nd July.

Accordingly, the contestants are going through the motions in order to get respectably to the finishing point and the coronation of Boris. It’s a slow marathon. But it would require a thunderbolt to change the outcome and I don’t believe one will suddenly descend from an outraged Heaven.

Plainly the commentators—both those of a Remainer disposition and of those in the grip of simple anti-Boris passion—thought for a heady moment that the police call at Symond’s apartment was just such a cataclysm. Their instant supposition that this was a case of domestic violence—a suspicion they maintained for some time after the police judgment was known—was a real disgrace to the journalistic trade and undermines its claims of professional impartiality.

Their demands that Boris should “explain” what the police had dismissed as a nothingburger were transparent attempts to trap Boris into discussing domestic violence so that he would be “linked” to the crime despite himself. His judgments not to do so but instead to leak a romantic photograph of himself and Ms. Symonds gazing mistily at each other looks right in retrospect. Boris’s sins are scarlet but they are the sins which modern culture indulges almost as much as it condemns moralising criticism of them.

He won that round and promptly changed the subject by reiterating his own determination to leave the EU by a date certain and declaring that all his ministers must share that determination. Ignore the nit-picking media concentration on possible contradictions in his declarations. They butter no parsnips. He said what the voters want to hear even if the media doesn’t. Boris ends the week strongly—not surprisingly for a firm favourite.

Jeremy Hunt ends it weaker after a bold start. Bold yes, but not very shrewd. If most Tories want the contest to be over, they are even keener that if it must continue, it should do so in a gentlemanly fashion that damages neither contestant. Calling Boris cowardly hardly fits that bill, and Hunt’s clumsy statements (Great Britain versus Little England, etc.) that suggest he may still be Remainer at heart weaken him further.
Lord Finkelstein is probably right that Hunt cannot win unless he strikes out boldly. But the corollary is that since he can’t win anyway, striking out boldly is pointless and self-defeating. If he wants to serve in a Boris Cabinet—and that seems the most sensible course for a practising Tory politicians—he should strike out modestly, reasonably and on safer topics. He ended the week less well than he began it.

If Boris is looking beyond the election to crafting a policy on Brexit afterwards, he should beware of talking up the prospects of amending the Withdrawal Agreement as the basis of a deal with Brussels. Almost all of those who will vote for him want nothing of the sort. They would see it as a betrayal, and the Brexit Party would see it a massive obstacle to any electoral pact. He would be weakened in dealing both with Brussels and with Tory MPs if he found himself asking for it to be passed a fourth time.

And the voters in an election wouldn’t see it as Brexit.

Trevor Phillips

“The broadcasters may not be politically biased; but they hate the idea that the politicians may start to control their own message… TV bosses will be desperate to get their own back on Boris.”

Let’s play Tory Leadership 20 Questions. I’m no expert on the party’s internal culture, but I’d be surprised if any of your questions included this devastating challenge : “Did you have a row with your partner last week?”. The broadcast media in particular took about 48 hours too long to grasp that Carrie Symonds’ sofa holds little intrigue for viewers and listeners. Their collective pearl-clutching said more about the censoriousness of the chattering classes than about the louche former Foreign Secretary.

After a week of headlines suggesting that his campaign is on the slide because of this controversy, according to Ipsos MORI (who I personally regard as the best of the pollsters) Boris Johnson’s ratings with the Tory membership have hardly budged from the mid-sixties; and he has actually increased his support amongst the wider electorate.

Poor Jeremy Hunt. Anyone who had pushed up his personal ratings threefold in a single week should be rejoicing. But in spite of a hyperactive and spirited performance, the underdog remains more than 30 points adrift amongst party members. He must be seething. What does he have to do to expose this rapscallion?

Well, hopefully he’ll abandon the attempt to make the campaign about “character”. In this battle, all the heavy weaponry is on the other side. It’s not Hunt’s fault that, whilst he seems like a decent bloke and an effective manager, in a battle between personalities, he is bringing a small paper knife to fight a man incapable of seeing a buckler without swashing it with his massive cutlass.

However, the Johnson camp will need to keep a close eye on its media relations. Broadcasters so far have had a poor time of it. Channel 4’s Boris-free debate passed without impact; the BBC’s turned out to be a damp squib, in which Boris barely got into second gear; Sky’s planned head-to-head never even got to air because of his refusal to participate; and no-one yet knows what ITV will do. These days TV likes to present itself as an unacknowledged element of the British constitution, affecting amazement when candidates refuse to come when its stars and executives whistle.

Unfortunately for us in the mainstream media, some personalities can now appeal directly over our heads, using digital platforms. Worse still, those with the guile and charisma of Trump, Johnson or Farage, can toss dead cats (or painted buses) on to the table with such skill that they force the journalists to dance to their tune. At the end of this week, if you google “Boris” and “buses” it takes a long time to get to “£350 million claim”.

The broadcasters may not be politically biased; but they hate the idea that the politicians may start to control their own message – don’t forget how deeply they loathed Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson for refusing to bow to their every demand. TV bosses will be desperate to get their own back on Boris. IDS, beware…..

The worst news for Johnson’s critics this week didn’t come from the Tory side. It lay in confirmation of Labour’s unelectability. The Ipsos MORI poll showed Jeremy Corbyn to be the least popular Labour leader in the history of such surveys. And on Thursday came news of a fresh eruption of anti-semitism around the Labour leader and his circle. Chris Williamson, a Corbyn ally, was readmitted to the party having been suspended. More than a hundred Labour parliamentarians wrote to Corbyn furiously denouncing his inertia and hypocrisy.

Earlier in the week, Hunt tried, half-heartedly, to tell party members that Johnson could implode and let in a Corbyn government. But after Thursday, I doubt that he will repeat this gambit. The risk gets lower each day. As long as Boris still speaks English, it is becoming clear that he could empty the entire stock of a Majestic warehouse over every sofa in South London and still deliver a Tory win when faced with such a miserable, divided, dislikeable, excuse for an Opposition.

Rachel Wolf

“The hope was always that Boris could manage to bridge divides and find common ground. Outside of the Westminster bubble, I think that is exactly what he’s just done.”

On Tuesday Hunt tweeted: “Deliver a Brexit that works for the 48% not just the 52% – a positive, open and internationalist Brexit, Great Britain not Little England.”

The problem here wasn’t so much that the Foreign Secretary attacked Leave voters – which he insists he wasn’t doing, anyway – but that he demonstrated a total misunderstanding of the public.

Before and during the referendum campaign, most people weren’t fanatics about Europe (though the debate over the last two years has made us, sadly, much more fanatical than we were). They were asked to vote on an issue – leaving the EU – and they did.

In voting, they traded off different issues. But that doesn’t mean they disagreed on the individual ideas – simultaneously thinking that immigration should come down and that there were economic benefits to staying in the EU.

And they care about the same things today. From all the focus groups we have done it is clear that immigration has reduced in importance in the polls because people think Brexit will deal with it –not because they don’t care about it. It will come back as an issue unless Brexit is solved to their satisfaction.

Boris clearly gets this. He has suggested he will pursue an Australian points system while dropping the current immigration target. This is not yet a policy. It’s sketchy.  But it does show that he can move the conversation to one that matches what people want from a post-Brexit world far better than his rival.

The debate on immigration isn’t one of simple numbers, but about control (as Vote Leave picked up on). What kind of people do we want to come in this country and under what conditions? In focus groups, people flatly reject the Government’s 100,000 target as ridiculous. It is a target we never needed to commit to (and because of it, we have appeared to serially lie to the electorate.)

It is also very clear from recent work we’ve done with the Centre for Policy Studies that the public support a more contributory – ‘something for nothing’ – benefits system for everyone, and that if this were in place some of the concerns around immigration would decline. It is also clear that people like the idea of students coming into our country.

In other words, their view is nuanced and – I think – pretty sensible. The hope was always that Boris could manage to bridge divides and find common ground. Outside of the Westminster bubble, I think that is exactly what he’s just done.

41 comments for: ConHome’s leadership election panel. “Hunt ends the week weaker, after a bold – but not very shrewd – start.”

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