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.
Barring a seismic upset or personal implosion beyond that which we have already seen, Boris Johnson is going to be the next Prime Minister. Jeremy Hunt is running a spirited campaign, but the structural factors against his candidacy are too great to surmount.
Although it will be difficult to acknowledge for some, the political imperative for the Conservative family is now to protect and enhance Johnson when he crosses the threshold to Downing Street.
It doesn’t matter if you vote for him in the run-off. There are plenty in our party who are going to do that anyway.
The more important question for moderates in the party is how to help Johnson get a politically acceptable Withdrawal Agreement over the line as soon as possible once he takes office. For all the confident bromides about embracing No Deal if there isn’t a resolution by 31 October, I fear that it would be a serious strategic economic mistake for the country. It would also likely involve a general election that has the potential to go very wrong indeed for the party. Beyond the party interest, I believe it is firmly the national interest that our country is spared even the beginnings of a flirtation with Marxism.
Johnson is certainly going to need some ballast behind him. As someone who once reluctantly hit the headlines for doing my job and scrutinising his character in a previous leadership contest, I am confident of that at least. His rhetorical skills and ability to reach beyond the humdrum of professional politics are not in doubt. But some of his default settings when it comes to detail, consistency and decision-making leave him vulnerable to this moment we’re in.
It is an inherently Conservative trait that we show gritty pragmatism at times of trial. It is why we are the most successful political party in the history of the democratic world. There is no point firing off righteous broadsides to people who already agree with you. So as someone who can hardly be described as a paid up member of #BackBoris, let me offer some constructive suggestions on priorities.
First, it is imperative that Johnson hires the best Conservative talent on the market to support him in Downing Street. And the best Conservative talent needs to be prepared to serve him. Johnson is sometimes compared to the detail-shy dealer in hope, Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had people like James Baker, Edwin Messe and Dick Darman to help him along the way. The intensity, the speed, the quantity and the difficulty of the decisions at hand will be nothing like Johnson’s operation has ever experienced before. With the greatest deal of respect, City Hall is nothing like Downing Street – and certainly not at a time of a constitutional crisis. He needs people of the calibre and experience of William Hague (even if he is voting for Jeremy Hunt) – or dare I say it George Osborne – to come back and direct the operation. This is far more important than whether someone voted Leave or Remain three years ago. He will be consumed unless he gets this right.
Second, Prime Minister Johnson should focus his powers of persuasion in his first days on getting the ERG wing of the Conservative Party to compromise. He should not be tempted to pander and tell them what they want to hear. As the Leader of the Vote Leave campaign, he has perhaps a sliver – if that – of a chance of pulling it off. For all the Brussels rhetoric of no movement on the infamous backstop, it is conceivable that the European Union will make a complicated, knotty and legally ambiguous concession on a time-limit that kicks in many years further down the line than most Tories would envisage. They will only do this if they can be persuaded that Johnson can genuinely deliver his party in turn.
The ERG needs to breathe deeply and support him in these circumstances. Just as most of those who voted Remain in the Conservative family have suppressed our concern and values – and reconciled ourselves to leaving the European Union because it’s what the majority narrowly voted for.
Brexit is not going to work if it is a quasi-evangelical crusade where one side can claim total victory. To say otherwise is to misunderstand the complicated nature of our relationship with the EU – and the complexity of interpreting the policy implications of referenda in a country built for representative democracy. The most frustrating thing is that we are not even arguing over the substance of our future relationship with the EU currently – but rather the narrow issue of whether we can withdraw unilaterally from transition while negotiating that future relationship one day. Given that the backstop is far from a sustainable solution for the EU either, for reasons that have been well documented, it is surely time to end this madness and move on. It is through this quick sequence of events that we can genuinely take ‘no deal’ off the table.
Third, it is the responsibility of Conservative MPs who are not obsessed by Brexit to stand their ground and recruit younger, more diverse audiences into the Conservative Party at a constituency level. It will help inordinately in persuading the former liberal Mayor of London – a man who likes to play to the gallery – to embrace his better instincts. We are not talking huge numbers here either. 50,000 new members in the course of two years would go a long way to realigning the critical mass of the party; the equivalent of 150 of our Conservative MPs recruiting three to four new members a week over the next 24 months.
And finally, should my advice be heeded and we do leave the European Union at decent speed and with a deal, it is critical the Conservative Party commits to an honest discussion of the trade-offs in what our future relationship looks like. Beneath the platitudes and jargon bingo of a Canada style trading relationship lie uncomfortable decisions about the future shape of the British economy; many would disadvantage the communities that voted most strongly to Leave. Until the Conservative Party is prepared to have this debate with itself, then Prime Minister Johnson will continue to be at the mercy of a Brexit tiger that he helped unleash where the hype can never meet the reality. And we will eventually pay the electoral price.
Will any of this advice be heeded by Johnson himself or the party he will soon lead? The indications from this leadership election so far have not been promising. But there is still time as we move from campaigning to governing. Critics of Johnson must remember that his success will be the country’s success if it allows us to move past the Brexit airlock. It is also the best chance of preserving a Conservative Party worth inheriting for a more appealing successor in the next leadership election to come.