Boris Johnson: Can Anything Stop Him Becoming Prime Minister?

It's inevitable - or is it?

It is written. Boris Johnson’s time has come and he will be the United Kingdom’s next prime minister.

Or so the story goes. As it stands, the ex-mayor of London does indeed have enough support to make it to the final two run-off, and it seems highly likely then that Tory members will crown their favourite the leader.

But even if Johnson appears to be within touching distance of Downing Street, Conservative Party leadership contests have a stubborn habit of not turning out as everyone expects.

Here are some things that *could* still frustrate the ex-foreign secretary in his quest for power.

His past comes back to haunt him


Bear with me. I’ll try to be brief.

Suffice it to say that opponents of Johnson who want to leaf through his past misdemeanours for ammunition will not come up short.

His closet contains a lot of skeletons. They include, but are not restricted to:

Johnson’s strategy thus far has been to avoid scrutiny, perhaps because he will face an avalanche of questions on the above points.

Tory members conclude he was a poor foreign secretary

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains imprisoned in Iran
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains imprisoned in Iran
PA Ready News UK

The person who becomes our next PM will ultimately be decided by the Tory party’s membership.

Brexit is hugely important to this group. This fact makes Johnson – who was the talisman of Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum and has pledged to take the UK out of the EU in October deal or no deal – the clear favourite.

But Conservative Party members, who are more likely to be managers or businesspeople, will also be weighing up who can beat both Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn and also provide stable government.

Pollster Lord Hayward found 23% of 2017 Tory voters thought Johnson would be a very bad PM. His controversial tenure as foreign secretary is thought to have contributed to this perception.

One of his major mistakes was to wrongly state British-Iranian mum Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is in jail in Iran on spying charges, had been in the Middle East country to teach journalism, when in fact she had been on holiday.

Johnson’s remarks were cited as evidence against the British-Iranian charity worker in court four days later. Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe told HuffPost he still resents Johnson for the comments.

Among Johnson’s other “gaffes” was to joke about dead Libyans - saying at the 2017 Tory Party conference that Sirte could be “the next Dubai”, adding: “The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then we will be there.”

...and that he wasn’t the greatest Mayor of London either

Ben Kendall - PA Images via Getty Images

It is true to say that knife crime fell during Johnson’s spell as London mayor, which ran from 2008 to 2016.

The 2012 Olympics was universally lauded as a success and he built more affordable homes than his predecessor Ken Livingstone did throughout his eight years in the job.

Johnson may not want to ponder on other uncomfortable facts, however, such as his refusal to cut short his holiday when the 2011 riots broke out and wasting £43m on a garden bridge project that was never built.

He also wasted about £322,000 of taxpayers’ cash buying water cannon vehicles from the German police without checking whether they could be used. The crowd control vehicles are, in fact, banned in England and Wales - something he was reminded of by the then-home secretary Theresa May.

He also faced claims of another “vanity project” in pressing for the Emirates cable car across the Thames, which cost the taxpayer some £24m.

His ‘submarine strategy’ backfires

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Team Boris has done a fine job of keeping the former foreign secretary as far away as humanly possible from journalists, TV cameras and rivals.

And for good reason. They fear that the one person who can ‘stop Boris’ is Boris Johnson.

During his first outing, at his own campaign launch, he mistook (perhaps wilfully) the word “character” for “parrot” and his supporters booed a journalist for asking a question.

And his appearance in the televised BBC debate was far from barnstorming.

While his allergy to scrutiny doesn’t seem to have damaged his standing with MPs - some 114 of them supported him at the first ballot, rising to 143 by the third - Tory members might worry about it.

Theresa May, who lost the Conservative Party its majority at the 2017 election, was heavily criticised for sending Amber Rudd in her place for the final TV debates with other party leaders.

One of Johnson’s rivals gets their act together

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It’s not not clear who is actually capable of doing as much, but each of the other candidates has an outside shot of snatching victory.

The buzz and the momentum was around international development secretary Rory Stewart, who has said he has “no problem” being seen as the ‘stop Boris’ candidate. But Stewart was knocked out in the third round despite a shock Conservative Home poll putting the outsider in second place among Tory members last week.

With key endorsements from cabinet ministers Amber Rudd and Penny Mordaunt, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is leading the race for second place.

Although Hunt has committed to keeping a no-deal Brexit as an option in negotiations with Brussels, his previous support for Remain could make him a suspect figure in the eyes of members.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, meanwhile, has strong Leave credentials and is hoping to win over Tory MPs by stressing his CV as a reformer in government.

But all are struggling to break through in the face of overwhelming support for Johnson and seem unlikely to be able to compete when ballots go out to the grassroots.

Everyone is wrong about Tory members

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Johnson’s camp insists the frontrunner is not complacent and has underlined that the favourite in a Tory leadership election rarely wins.

There is some truth to that. The Tory membership - about 75% male with an average age of 57 - has a habit of surprising us all.

In 2005, 68% backed David Cameron, on a pledge to reform the party, over David Davis and in 2001 picked Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke, despite the former chancellor’s greater wealth of cabinet experience.

But ...

It is widely assumed that the membership is strongly pro-Brexit and this will work in Johnson’s favour when the final choice between is passed to them.

Countless polls back this up. Johnson has regularly been named as the top choice of Tory members in Conservative Home surveys - usually a reliable bellwether of the party’s grassroots. It is therefore highly likely that he will win.

With so few policy commitments nailed down and the Brext question looming on the horizon, the words on everyone’s lips will switch from ‘who can stop Boris’ to ‘what next, Boris?’.


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