And then there were two…
Votes have been cast and we have our final two candidates; Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The parliamentary stage in the Conservative leadership contest has officially finished and it now moves to party members to decide who the future leader and Prime Minister should be. The candidates will attend a series of ‘hustings’ across the country, giving local associations and members a chance to question the candidates in person. Then members will cast a postal vote to select their future leader. The announcement will be made on 23rd July with the new Prime Minister officially taking over on the 24th, just one day before the House rises for summer recess.
It’s difficult to be certain of anything in politics, and any manner of things could happen in the next 4 weeks, but save for a catastrophe, the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister is almost certainly going to be Boris Johnson.
Boris has often been likened to Marmite and whilst he has always divided opinion, his success in the contest so far has proven that, like or dislike him, he might well be the candidate the party needs right now. He has made the parliamentary stage of the leadership campaign look easy. Despite his apparent unpopularity amongst the parliamentary party, he has managed to get well over half his peers backing him. This support will give Boris a platform to present himself as the ‘unity candidate’ who can bring the Conservative Party back together and take on Nigel Farage.
However, Jeremy Hunt will not go down without a fight. He probably has more ammunition at his disposal than he would going up against any other candidate, but he has his work cut out. Boris has shown, perhaps more than any other politician, that he can get knocked down (rather a lot) and get back up again, fairly unscathed. Jeremy has demonstrated his determination and resilience during his 6 years at the Department of Health (which is certainly no mean feat for a Conservative Health Secretary) but while he has proven he can work well in Whitehall, and may even rival Boris at the dispatch box, he lacks the charisma and passion that Boris oozes when he addresses a crowd. Expect to see buckets of it at the hustings over the next 4 weeks.
After what can only be described as 3 years of a lacklustre premiership, the Party is desperately in need of a leader who is at least seen as capable of navigating the murky waters of Brexit. Jeremy’s success over Gove is ultimately a win for Boris. Gove would have posed a much greater threat to Boris, challenging him (and probably outwitting him) on Brexit, the environment, and education. He also got “lucky” early in the contest when Dominic Raab was eliminated – Boris would have struggled to shine as the candidate ‘to deliver Brexit, come what may’ against someone like Raab. In Hunt, he doesn’t have this problem and that gives him room for manoeuvre over any Brexit ‘red lines’.
Away from Brexit, there is plenty of domestic policy for the rivals to clash on and one of the policies that is going to prove difficult for Boris is Heathrow expansion. During the BBC debates, it was the one question in which he looked visibly uncomfortable and given how fervently against it he says he was (threatening to lie in front of bulldozers) one wonders how he can simply u-turn. Although, if anyone can, it’s probably Boris. Some reports suggest that whilst he remains uncomfortable with the idea of it, he has reassured expansion supporters that he will respect the will of Parliament. This sounds like u-turn preparation, and if it is, Jeremy’s campaign team will pick up on it and try to use it to present Boris as untrustworthy and unprincipled. They will argue that if he can change his mind on Heathrow, then he can do it on anything – perhaps most importantly, Brexit.
Will it be enough to stop Boris though? Almost certainly not.