The Tory leadership election is over. There are now only two people who can emerge on July 22 as the new leader of the Conservative Party, and the country.
One is Boris Johnson. The other is Theresa May. It sounds mad, but let me explain…
Before the contest began the main obstacle confronting Boris was his own parliamentary colleagues. There were questions about whether he could secure sufficient support to make it to the final run-off with the membership.
A No10 adviser told me May’s fears over the implications for the future of the Union would likely see the Prime Minister opposing No Deal herself
But it took just a single round of voting for him to stun Westminster, top the poll and have the keys to Downing Street in his grasp.
In the minutes after the result was confirmed, his erstwhile rivals were already conceding the game was up.
‘It’s about identifying the Designated Survivor now,’ one Cabinet Minister told me, referencing the practice of leaving a junior official in the Oval Office to secure the line of succession if anything happens to the President and other senior members of government when they gather for the State of the Union address.
‘Someone has to stay in the race just in case Boris destroys himself, and we need somebody to step in to save the party and the country.’
Asked for detail on how he would deliver all this where May had failed, the best he could manage was a pledge to lead ‘a government inspired with a new vigour, a new confidence, a new optimism about what we can do’
I hate to disappoint his enemies but this time Boris won’t destroy himself. His team are too disciplined, he has already negotiated numerous high-profile campaigns, and any skeletons emerging from his capacious closet now simply amuse, rather than frighten or shock.
He could be caught in flagrante with Jean-Claude Juncker and his grassroots admirers would shrug and say ‘that’s just Boris being Boris’.
But unless he wakes up – or the Conservative Party shakes him awake – his victory procession will prove to be a sleep-walk to disaster. Or, more specifically, a sleepwalk into a repeat of every failure of the May administration.
It’s two and a half years since the Prime Minister delivered the Lancaster House speech that defined – and ultimately doomed – her premiership. In it, she set out her Brexit strategy. She was intent on securing a deal with the European Union.
She was sure she would get one. But people should be under no illusion.
‘While I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,’ she said. On the specifics of her plan, she admonished: ‘The Government will not be pressured into saying more than I believe it is in our national interest to say.’
Last Monday Boris unveiled his own Brexit vision. He was intent on securing a deal. He was confident he could get one. But people needed to be clear.
‘I am not aiming for a No Deal outcome. I don’t think that we will end up with any such thing. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously for No Deal,’ he warned.
Asked for detail on how he would deliver all this where May had failed, the best he could manage was a pledge to lead ‘a government inspired with a new vigour, a new confidence, a new optimism about what we can do’.
One successful tactic employed by Boris’s team has been to label their opponents ‘Continuity May’. But on Brexit the continuity candidate is actually Boris himself.
His and May’s strategies are currently identical. Aim for a deal. Express optimism about securing a deal. Wave the stick of No Deal if one cannot be secured. Provide absolutely no specifics about how either a deal or No Deal can bypass the labyrinth of Brussels or the minefield of the House of Commons.
On Wednesday an attempt by Jeremy Corbyn to seize control of the parliamentary agenda and sabotage No Deal was defeated by 11 votes. This was hailed by Johnson’s allies as evidence he could bulldoze his way past parliament, if required.
I hate to disappoint his enemies but this time Boris won’t destroy himself. His team are too disciplined, he has already negotiated numerous high-profile campaigns, and any skeletons emerging from his capacious closet now simply amuse, rather than frighten or shock
Again, it was a fantasy. In any future attempt to block No Deal, the ranks of the rebels will be swelled by members of the Government.
Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and Rory Stewart have already set themselves against No Deal.
A No10 adviser told me May’s fears over the implications for the future of the Union would likely see the Prime Minister opposing No Deal herself.
But Boris believes – just as his predecessor believed – hard political reality is no match for blind optimism and a heart-felt entreaty to patriotism. ‘In the end maturity and a sense of duty will prevail,’ he exclaimed enthusiastically on Wednesday.
The smouldering wreckage of the May premiership proves it won’t. And unless Boris uses the next five weeks to secure a clear mandate for his own detailed Brexit strategy, he will experience the same gruesome fate.
At the moment the Boris campaign is being conducted behind closed doors. ‘We’ve locked him in his room and we won’t be letting him out till he’s won,’ an ally told me.
But no one knows what is being said in that room. ERG MPs report a Churchillian commitment to leaving on October 31. Moderates insist he is secretly preparing the ground for another extension.
Others circulate rumours – denied by his camp – that he is considering the nuclear option of a second referendum. All of which is laying the groundwork for a fresh betrayal narrative, and another Tory implosion.
As one battle-scarred Downing Street aide said to me: ‘It’s not enough to say what you want the outcome to be. The question you have to answer is, ‘How? How will you deliver it?’
‘What’s his plan? It’s not about what he wants to happen, it’s how is he going to make it happen?’
At the moment Boris refuses to provide the answer. A General Election? Prorogation? A referendum? Another extension? He won’t say.
Last week Tory MPs anointed Boris Johnson their new leader. But if they’re not careful, they will awake next month to find they have instead re-elected Theresa May.
Secret’s out about The Saj snub
There was a major row at Westminster last week after Sajid Javid said it was ‘odd’ he’d been barred from attending the Donald Trump state banquet.
No 10 was forced to deny allegations the snub was based on orders from the US delegation, and linked to Javid’s Muslim background.
But I understand the real reason was nothing to do with Trump, but instead the festering animosity between Javid and Theresa May.
No 10 was forced to deny allegations the snub was based on orders from the US delegation, and linked to Javid’s Muslim background
‘Our public line has been the Palace decides invitations,’ a Downing Street source explained ‘but the truth is Saj had spent months begging to get in, and there were only limited spaces. Theresa decided there were others more deserving.’
At the time the Trump itinerary was being finalised, relations between Javid’s and May’s team had become so bad that Home Office advisers were refusing to accept calls from Downing Street, and May’s aides had to resort to placing calls via No 10’s number-masking switchboard to hide their origin.
If Saj had made it to the banquet, he’d definitely have found himself below the salt.
I’m told Boris Johnson’s team put him through a brutal mock interrogation to prepare him for his Wednesday campaign launch. ‘We were really hard on him,’ an ally explains.
‘We were deliberately asking him the sort of questions no journalist could ask over an open microphone. We’d hit him, then go in for four or five follow-ups. We were trying to get him to react. And it worked brilliantly.
When he walked into the room he was battle-ready. Nobody could lay a glove on him.’ Boris rivals will want to find out what some of those X-rated questions were.
Tory MPs are becoming concerned that a final Boris/Gove run-off could see a repeat of the ‘psychodrama’ of the 2016 leadership contest, when Gove infamously abandoned his fellow Brexiteer to launch his own campaign. On Tuesday, the Environment Secretary taunted his former friend with the innuendo-laden appeal: ‘Mr Johnson, whatever you do, don’t pull out!’
Gove has now told supporters he believes that was a mistake, and intends to avoid any further blue-on-blue attacks. ‘Michael’s going to concentrate on putting forward a positive vision from now on,’ an ally tells me. ‘There’ll be no more Boris-bashing.’ Boris is still bruised by the 2016 betrayal. Will he accept the olive branch?