Is the Boris bandwagon an invincible juggernaut or a rickety transit van whose wheels could come off at any time? It certainly resembles a fast-car coupe with everyone trying to cram in the back. Right now, Johnson is certainly the man to beat and his camp are quietly pleased at the major progress he’s made in getting MPs on board to date. But others remain very wary, given how little scrutiny he’s had so far, and feel it’s best to get everything out in the open now before any coronation by the rank and file.
As I wrote last week, his supporters have privately already signed up more than 80 colleagues and the strategy of drip-feeding endorsements continues today. Iain Duncan Smith’s backing will surprise few, but it’s the kind of support that could have helped the other main ‘be-Leaver’ in the race, Dominic Raab. Similarly, last night’s ’92 Group’ hustings results, given the group’s members are on the right of the party, confirmed Johnson has convinced many of those who have reason to suspect he could go wobbly once in power.
What is striking is how Johnson is picking up support from across the party. Whereas Jeremy Hunt’s slogan ‘Unite to Win’ feels thin given his tiny number of Brexiteers on board, Boris has somehow managed to be all things to all factions – from socially liberal types who liked Boris Mk1 as London Mayor, to hardliners who admired Boris Mk2 leading Vote Leave. So far. A briefing for MPs this afternoon on polling by Lynton Crosby (the ‘Wizard of Oz’ who talks daily to Johnson) suggests he is reaching parts of the electorate (and selectorate) others cannot reach.
And it’s the endorsement of former Remainers from the centre-left of the party that catches the eye today, particularly Robert Buckland. Traditionally, Tory ‘wets’ have been more unified around one candidate than the right, but last night’s private dinner for One Nation Caucus members showed how split they now are. Among those around the table were Buckland (Boris), Greg Clarke (Stewart), David Lidington (Hancock) and Nicky Morgan (Gove).
One Boris backer put it neatly this morning, saying they had joined the campaign “because we need people like me in the car with him steering”. Johnson may be at the wheel, but boy does he need help with his political satnav. The one big policy announcement he has made on tax (a tax cut for people earning more than £50,000) appeared to unravel within minutes yesterday. Raab mercilessly mocked plans to give tax cuts to the ‘already wealthy’, while Rory Stewart did a very good job of pointing out Scots would get hammered by the accompanying rise in National Insurance.
It was a classic case of a bungled, poorly thought-out policy and gave several MPs pause for thought. Most glaringly obvious was what a huge open goal it gave Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to paint the Tories as the party of the rich, with little cash left for public services. As I said yesterday, the language of priorities is often the religion of conservatism and not just socialism. Liz Truss, who many think will become the first female chancellor in Johnson’s team, was one of the few who enthusiastically backed his tax plan.
As we report today, Johnson is also coming under fire for the way he used the Peterborough by-election for his leadership campaign. Despite being warned by Tory chairman Brandon Lewis, he went ahead and filmed local candidate Paul Bristow as part of his launch video. Team Boris are relaxed about the whole thing, but one sceptical insider suggests it sums up a combination of ego combined with a slapdash approach to detail: “He was warned not to campaign, but once again couldn’t resist putting himself first. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him.”
As for Johnson’s strategy of avoiding contact with the media (as Matt Hancock put it this morning “We’ve got to ask the question, why not?”), that could well end very soon. I’m told he has in principle signed up to the ITV debate for the final two candidates but is reluctant to say so for fear of looking presumptuous.
One big worry among the Boris camp is that the multi-player TV hustings would gift Labour lots of ‘blue-on-blue’ clips that Corbyn will use on a loop at the next election. Rivals will see that as him avoiding the one-way pile-on that is sure to come in any six-way or eight-way debate.
Some tricky media questions will be unavoidable at his formal launch tomorrow. Still, the choice of our next PM really needs a sustained, live grilling as specialised by Andrew Neil (and Eddie Mair and others). Failing to answer the key questions (on Brexit extensions, backstops and more) never helped Theresa May, after all. The one person who can sabotage the Boris bandwagon may well be Boris Johnson himself. But that’s no reason to run away from a vigorous MOT.