On Saturday, the Scotsman ran a story about the Scottish Conservatives’ campaign – which has been declared a success – to thwart Boris Johnson’s ambitions to lead the Party.
According to the paper, Scots Tories have mounted a “whispering campaign” of behind-the-scenes lobbying to persuade their parliamentary colleagues that the former Mayor would do serious damage to the Party’s prospects north of the border.
This assertion is apparently based on private polling, but whilst YouGov still reports Johnson as the most popular Tory with their respondents the idea that he might not play well in Scotland doesn’t seem hard to credit. That Ruth Davidson greatly dislikes him won’t have helped, either.
And yet… it remains the case that he is apparently amongst the most popular Conservative politicians in the country. YouGov’s data reinforces the findings of our own monthly survey, which finds Johnson comfortably ahead in our “Who should be leader after May?” question – although as we acknowledge, this may simply reflect that stasis has set in now that the Prime Minister’s position as leader is secure for the time being.
Since we must still assume that Johnson would at the very least be a contender for the leadership if he made it to the membership vote, the Scottish Conservatives’ focusing their efforts on persuading MPs makes sense.
But whilst ‘Operation Arse’ may have been declared a success, it would be extremely presumptuous to rule Johnson out of the running whilst the timing and circumstances of the next leadership election remain completely unknown. Which poses a question for both him and his supporters: how much does it matter that the Scottish Tories think he’d be a disaster?
It certainly ought to matter, and not just for principled unionist reasons. The Government has only held onto office because of the Conservative rebound in Scotland at the last election – a rebound brought about by people who stuck with the Party through two very lean decades indeed, some of whom have suggested they would not stick with it through a Johnson premiership. Winning a majority at the next election will require broadening the Tory tent, not shrinking it.
Nor should we forget that, with Labour in the doldrums, Davidson’s Conservatives are the principle bulwark against the SNP’s ongoing drive to break up our country. Brexit may so far have discredited the idea of the ‘fragile Union’, but that’s no excuse to risk handing Nicola Sturgeon the Holyrood majority she’d need to mount another push in the 2020s.
The Scottish Conservatives’ deep reservations about Johnson aren’t new. Yet if he’s made any effort to reach out to Scottish colleagues, or to tackle his negative impression amongst Scottish voters, both we and they have missed it. And that, perhaps more even than his actual unpopularity in Scotland, is a problem.
With both the membership and MP selectorate overwhelmingly English, it would be relatively easy come the next leadership contest for the concerns of the Scottish party to be marginalised. But the Tories owe it to both the country and their own political interests to choose a leader both willing and able to reach out beyond the faithful. If Johnson is still that candidate, he should prove it.