Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
It is the columnist’s duty to try and tell the reader things they don’t already know. So I hope I am not falling short in my fortnightly insight if I say that Boris Johnson is the current favourite to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.
There are a number of reasons why this is true. Not least his pitch on Brexit; the most simple on the surface being if a Withdrawal Agreement has not been concluded by the time the starting gun is fired.
But the overriding reason is that he is popular with the Conservative grassroots. And they are the ones who will have the final say in a leadership election. So if Johnson can vault the hurdle of getting into the final two amongst MPs – which is not yet certain and his biggest stumbling block – then he stands a good chance of success.
Johnson is unlikely to be getting my vote if he makes it to the final two. For all his charismatic qualities, I question whether he is the national electoral asset of old. Research suggests that his role at the head of the Leave campaign and his positioning since have left him badly placed to win voters under 50 back to the Conservative cause. Although some might argue that Theresa May is too detail-driven in her decision making, I fear that Johnson at the helm of the ship would be an unwise overcorrection. And there’s also the not insubstantial fact that his Brexit platform risks a No Deal general election by accident – in which I think a lot of Tory MPs would lose their seats and Jeremy Corbyn would end up in Downing Street.
Nonetheless, one should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For all his deficiencies, it is important to recognise that Johnson remains an extraordinarily good communicator with the Conservative base.
Other candidates in the leadership contest of a more centrist and modernising bent – who will argue our party needs to put Brexit behind us and reach out to people we’ve lost- would do well to probe into why he does this so effectively. Do this, and they will be in better stead to take him on.
It is a lazy supposition that Johnson’s equity with the grassroots comes solely from his support for full-fat Brexit. It’s part of the equation but there’s more to it. Tory members are not stupid. They know that he was a late convert to leaving the European Union and, many suspect, for politically expedient reasons. I suspect in their heart of hearts they know the same holds for why he resigned from the Government after Chequers. However, despite all this, there is still something perceptible that strikes a chord with the rank and file and always has.
It comes down to three things.
First, Johnson is proud of Conservative values and is prepared to talk about them in positive terms. Reading his columns and speeches, while the views on policy may flip-flop all over the place, you do get a sense of someone who is at least unashamed of being a Tory: possessed of a boundless belief in the inherent capability of the human spirit, an understanding of the limitations of the bureaucrat’s pen – all wrapped up in a love of our nation, its institutions and its history.
The centrists and modernisers of 2019 should take heed. It is not possible to change a political party by junking its central values and beliefs. If you want to do that, then you should start a new party. Modernisers only succeed by establishing shared values with the party’s core – and then demonstrating to the faithful that they have the ability to communicate these values to new audiences in a way relevant for the time. So talk by all means about raising living standards and making the economy fairer for younger generations; but make sure you do it through the prism of backing entrepreneurship, promoting healthy competition and rewarding work. Do make the case for greater investment in our public services after a decade of spending restraint but never lose sight of the fact that Conservatives don’t throw good money after bad and we judge public spending by the value it delivers for hardworking taxpayers. You get the drift.
Second, Johnson is an optimist. There’s a lot of commentary and analysis out there from the current leadership cohort about how bad things are for the country as well as the existential crisis our party faces. This is all true and a little bit of introspection during a leadership contest is fine. But leave the bulk of it to the commentariat. Existing activists have dedicated significant portions of their lives to the service of the party. They want you to reassure them that it’s going to be ok in the end and a better future lies around the corner. This is only credible if it’s backed up with a plan and policies – where I think Johnson can be beaten – but optimism itself is infectious.
Third, Johnson can speak and Johnson can write. There was a time when more politicians were able to do that; words in their trade are deeds. Many Conservative activists know it and remember it. A lot of his best work is his own and not produced by others. He has some world-class strategists around him who try and keep him on the straight and narrow. But he is the progenitor of his own vision (you could argue the progenitor of many different visions at different stages of his career). There is something in that nonetheless for those who aspire to lead.
Johnson’s weakness has always been whether there is enough substance behind the curtain. Under the heat of a full-blown leadership election, there is an opportunity for an opponent of substance to put him under pressure on the issues; including what his position on a no-deal Brexit really means. But respect his potency with our most loyal customers. He knows that you don’t get to enact a vision for the country until you can thread it first with the fabric of your party. Once you understand that, you have a better chance of laying a finger on him in what may shortly follow.