John O’Sullivan is National Review’s Editor at Large, and is a former adviser to Lady Thatcher.
The Tory leadership campaign continues to be “the most colossal bore”, and for the same reason: Boris Johnson is sailing to an almost inevitable triumph.
Almost no-one believes the reports that Jeremy Hunt is catching up him, still less that Johnson’s team is worried by this anti-Boris trend. The Tory activists (blue-rinsed ladies or apoplectic colonels according to taste) will simply turn deaf ears to almost anything hostile written or said about him. They want Johnson and Brexit by return of post.
The media has a professional interest in pretending otherwise, and they invent or amplify any incident that pops up to make the horse-race look like a two-horse one. As the rival contender, moreover, Hunt can depend upon a favourable headline by attacking Johnson.
He performs that role quite well, but he tripped up this week with his Uuturn on hunting. And Fleet Street’s voracious need for stories seems to me to have liberated reporters and commentators to denounce Johnson – not politically, as they do with Jeremy Corbyn, but in the most personal terms. I’ve rarely seen more stories that do little other than list a public figures low qualities in the harshest language. It illustrates the establishment’s deep hostility to him – and that’s why it’s not working.
Indeed, the fates have played into Johnson’s hands this week in the form of YouGov. Its poll showing that Labour now gets only 18 per cent support from the voters, thus running third after the Liberal Democrats, was bad for Corbyn but catnip to the front-runner. It demonstrated clearly that the Tories now have less to fear from Labour or the Lib Dems (the Left is now split in three) and more from the Brexit Party. Johnson is the candidate who represents a Brexit-First Strategy.
But there’s an iceberg ahead. Most commentators see his best hope as Prime Minister being to get a Brexit deal agreed with the EU and passed by the Commons before an election. In fact any such deal can only be a variant of May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and so unacceptable both to the activists who support Johnson today and those who have already joined Nigel Farage.
And a more immediate iceberg has emerged in the distance that could well result in the Unsinkable Boris being, well, sunk. I don’t say that it will happen, but it’s a possibility, and if he is sunk, it will be because he has freely embraced an avoidable error.
Johnson has agreed to be interviewed by Andrew Neil.
Neil is the World Heavyweight Interviewing Champion. It will be an epic interview, and the candidate risks becoming high-grade mincemeat. Neil will slice up Hunt too, but since everyone expects that, it won’t count.
Johnson may be badly wounded in this encounter. But if he survives it unscathed, or even with credit, it would be a signal that contrary to his media critics, he may have the qualities to be Prime Minister. And the leadership race would no longer be the most colossal bore.