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 the summer, I made the case for Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May before any election campaign on the grounds that he offers the best chance of victory. But getting elected Conservative leader is incredibly hard because much of the electorate (the MPs) is totally irrational and unpredictable. In Boris Johnson’s case, five things stand in his way.
Firstly, the Conservative Party isn’t genuinely Eurosceptic. The Referendum Party, UKIP and a plethora of campaigning groups sprung up in the 1990s and 2000s because the upper echelons of the Conservative Party were fundamentally pro-EU. As last year’s referendum showed, things haven’t changed that much: not only did most of the Government back remain, but it’s now clear few senior politicians share Johnson’s zeal for a swift exit. A committed Leave campaigner would be attractive to the party’s grassroots but not to Cabinet colleagues.
Secondly, the timetable for action is extremely tight. Let’s be honest, the process of leaving the EU is likely to be very turbulent. A number of businesses are bound to transfer operations out of the country and media outlets like the FT will suggest the economy is going to be irreparably damaged. Does a Leave campaigner like Johnson take over amid such a negative backdrop? Not impossible, but the chances are reduced. That means it would be better for him to take over sooner rather than later. But he can’t be seen to wield the axe. Which makes things very complicated.
Thirdly, he’s less popular than he was amongst the public. Johnson is a great retail politician and campaigner, but there’s no denying his role in the referendum has made him unpopular amongst many voters. In the past, the one great argument for Johnson was that he could win elections. While that’s surely still the case, given just how good his campaigning skills are, Boris-sceptics can easily point to his reduced poll ratings to argue that he’s had his time.
Fourthly, there’s a credibility problem. I find Johnson’s knock-about style tedious, but most Conservative members and many ordinary voters seem to find it endearing. Will they continue to find it endearing when they think of him doing the most important job in the country? That remains to be seen but he has yet to convince people that he is genuinely a politician of substance. His Telegraph piece was exceptional, but we don’t see anything like enough of this.
Fifthly, he won’t prepare for interviews. This is related to the credibility point. I’ve lost count of the number of times that he’s completely messed up policy-focused interviews because of a visible lack of preparation. Scrutiny and expectations are only going to increase and he simply has to get his act together in the media or he’ll rightly be disqualified as a candidate in people’s minds.
Can he overcome these barriers? While possible, doing so will be a formidably difficult task. In truth, it doesn’t feel like the Parliamentary Party is quite ready for him. A Johnson campaign would be eased by a sense of emergency – a real Corbyn surge or a sense that May’s Brexit strategy was wrongly conceived – but we’re not at that point yet.