How Boris Johnson Won The Tory MPs’ Leadership Ballot - And Got Serious About Taking On Jeremy Corbyn

The inside story of the former foreign secretary's parliamentary and extra-parliamentary campaign to get to No.10.

When the news came through, Boris Johnson was not in the House of Commons to hear it.

As the final totals in the Tory leadership race were read out in Committee Room 14, the man of the moment was on his way to a Conservative constituency association dinner in the marginal seat of Reading West.

Speeding down the M4 motorway in a car driven by an aide, he heard the result on the radio, then texted his aides to thank them for their hard work so far.

Leaving Westminster behind, Johnson was honouring a long-standing commitment to speak at the Tory dinner attended by Alok Sharma.

Crucially, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the neighbouring Reading East seat - lost to Labour in the Corbyn surge of the 2017 general election - was also present.

Sharma, a minister and early supporter of the Johnson leadership campaign, had expected his friend would have to cancel, given the momentous events back in Westminster. But Johnson insisted.

For his team, the symbolism was clear. Their man was focused on the Tory grassroots, but also on the bigger picture of the next election and the battle ahead with Corbyn. And in a counter to all those claims that he can’t be trusted, he was delivering on a personal promise.

After the first round of balloting, he had travelled even further to Lincoln, for an engagement for nearby MP Caroline Johnson, booked months before anyone knew Theresa May would be quitting.

One ally adds that on the night of spectacular leadership implosion in 2016, when he quit after being ‘knifed’ by Michael Gove, Johnson went to Devon to a similar local party event. “Many would have pulled out, not Boris. Despite everyone painting him as unreliable.”

His critics have a different take on his Reading trip. They believe the very fact that the front-runner was not even in parliament to hear the results said everything about his complacency. The image of him scuttling off, avoiding the media yet again even in his hour of triumph to avoid questions, was seen as a weakness.

However, his admirers argue that the perpetual motion is a sign of the discipline and focus Johnson once lacked. “Head down, march on. As Rory [Stewart] might say,” one MP says, with a smile.

The journey over the next four weeks will criss-cross the country via countless hustings meetings with Jeremy Hunt, but the former London Mayor’s eyes are firmly on the real destination: Downing Street. Ever since he quit the cabinet last summer over May’s compromise Brexit deal, he’s quietly built a formidable team around him.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson after their 2016 EU referendum victory
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson after their 2016 EU referendum victory
PA Archive/PA Images

Back in the Commons on Thursday evening, that team were not taking anything for granted. The main hope was the elimination of Gove, seen as a much tougher opponent because of both his debating skills and his role in helping lead the Vote Leave campaign.

Gove supporters had certainly spent the afternoon worrying about a major ‘black ops’ push that would see Johnson’s hardcore of supporters ‘lend’ their votes to Hunt.

At least 20 votes, estimated to transfer from Sajid Javid to Johnson, “got lost on the way”, one Gove ally said, wryly. “Boris didn’t get the numbers we expected,” another added. “Shall we say it was…surprising.”

In Johnson’s fourth floor office in the Commons, key members of his core parliamentary team gathered around the TV for the 6.05pm announcement.

In previous rounds, ‘numbers man’ Grant Shapps had written down his estimate in a sealed envelope, got Johnson to sign it with his signature and then opened it after the result was read out. He twice got the number exactly right.

Whereas traditional leadership campaigns used thick, loose-leaf notebooks to keep tally of supporters, Shapps used a computer spreadsheet with more than 1,300 data points listing the preferences of each of the 313 Tory MPs in the Commons.

This time, with Johnson absent, Shapps didn’t have an envelope prepared. Instead he told those gathered in the office: “Hunt, by a whisker.” When the result was read out, with Hunt beating Gove into second place by just two votes, a cheer went up.

Within a minute, the discussion switched to ‘Phase 2’ and the need to continue the same professionalism shown in the Westminster phase. “We’ve got two Jeremys to beat now: first Hunt, then Corbyn,” one ally said. “We’re serious about both.”

Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague in 2001
Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague in 2001
Jeff Overs via Getty Images

It was a similar story over in the Johnson campaign HQ in 11 Lord North Street, yards from parliament. The campaign team gathered around a 38 inch TV to watch the result live. The room was cluttered with whiteboards filled with media grids and planning for ‘Phase 2’.

After the initial cheer at their man getting 160 votes - more than half the parliamentary party - it was time to focus on logistics such as getting from the south west to Scotland overnight for hustings later this month.

Indeed, in many ways, both Johnson’s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary HQs tell their own story of just how differently he’s approached this leadership campaign in contrast to his shambolic bid three years ago.

The 11 Lord North Street venue is the home of Greville Howard, a millionaire Eurosceptic. The Georgian townhouse was Michael Portillo’s supposedly secret base for a leadership challenge to John Major in 1995 - until someone spotted 40 extra telephone lines being installed. The challenge never happened.

In a neat twist of fate, the 18th century property was next the campaign HQ for Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, when he emerged as Portillo’s rival to replace William Hague - and went on to win. Howard was three years later given a peerage.

And Duncan Smith has been a crucial ally in getting fellow Brexiteers on board the ‘Boris bandwagon’ in 2019.

Lord Howard signed up early to the Boris Johnson campaign and his home has in recent weeks been turned into a hive of activity, packed with computers, constituency maps and eager aides.

Crucially, among those volunteers are figures linked to Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian polling and campaigns guru who helped Johnson twice win in London and masterminded David Cameron’s 2015 general election triumph.

Although his firm are not formally linked to the campaign, Crosby talks to Johnson almost daily on the phone, stressing the need to maintain message discipline.

On Wednesday, when the candidate cut into a large cake to mark his 55th birthday, it was Crosby’s partner Mark Fulbrook who was a looming presence in the office, checking the tightly controlled organisation.

Similarly, Johnson’s new Commons office is another example of how seriously he’s taken this leadership bid this time around.

Allies say that it was his campaign manager, former MP James Wharton, and former minister Sir Mike Penning who realised earlier this year that the former foreign secretary’s office, in an obscure part of Westminster known as the Norman Shaw buildings, was too remote to meet colleagues.

Penning swapped his own large office suite, in a plum corner spot in the more accessible Portcullis House building, with Johnson’s and the impact was immediate. MP meetings with the candidate became the priority of the campaign. The move by Penning, who was Duncan Smith’s key aide in the Lord North Street HQ 18 years earlier, ensured the regular face-to-face contact that put Johnson in the driving seat.

The first aim was to attract as many Brexiteers as possible, to weaken the rival bids of Dominic Raab, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom. The second was to sign up as many ‘moderate’ Tories as possible to show Johnson could unite both wings of the party. The early endorsement of prisons minister Robert Buckland was a major coup.

At a ‘One Nation Caucus’ dinner last week, Buckland left his colleagues aghast when he came out for Johnson. But in a sign that moderate Tories were split as never before, the dinner also featured Matt Hancock supporters Damian Green and David Lidington, Rory Stewart supporter Ken Clarke and Michael Gove supporter Nicky Morgan. “We knew that with the moderates so divided, no challenger would rival us for numbers early on,” one MP said.

As for Jeremy Hunt, he has spent the past few weeks trying to juggle his day job of foreign secretary with the demands of a leadership bid.

His own inner core campaign team of Philip Dunne and James Cartlidge had been quick to build support soon after May’s resignation announcement, but knew they would have to work around the foreign office’s demands.

Defence secretary Penny Modaunt, a Hunt backer
Defence secretary Penny Modaunt, a Hunt backer
PA Wire/PA Images

The dramatic ‘reveal’ of Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt at Hunt’s campaign launch was a key moment, but it was the behind the scenes marshalling of the ‘payroll’ vote of serving ministers and others that secured the numbers needed to get an early second place in the race.

The campaign suffered its only serious setback during the Lobby hustings on Monday, when Hunt failed to distance himself sufficiently from a tweet by Donald Trump of far-right sympathiser Katie Hopkins. He had to clarify his remarks.

On Thursday, Hunt was meeting ministers from Saudi Arabia and UAE in his large foreign office suite, just half an hour before the 1922 Committee was due to read out the final result. It took several knocks on his door from increasingly panicky aides to alert him that it was time to head over to the Commons to find out if he still had a chance to become PM.

Hunt had had to fight back hard after Gove leapfrogged him on the fourth ballot, and personally telephoned several MPs to plead for support. The pitch was simple: “another personal psychodrama” of Johnson v Gove would damage the party and send the wrong message to the wider country.

When the foreign secretary finally made it to his Commons office, he and his team had no real idea if they would make it through. But as they watched news of his two-vote margin of victory live on TV, the relief was huge.

Hunt hugged his wife Lucia, while Cartlidge and Liam Fox and former chairman Patrick McLoughlin cheered. Small Peroni beer bottles were handed out as the reality of making the final two sank in. Afterwards, Hunt headed to a Tory association event in Surrey.

The Hunt camp know they have a mountain to climb but will try to frame their man as the ‘underdog’ who has the more statesman-like grasp of detail needed to deliver on Brexit.

While keen not to be seen as divisive, his team are already preparing to use the hustings among party members as a chance to prove he is more rigorous and dependable.

Armed with polling intelligence that the rank and file want more scrutiny rather than a coronation, Hunt is being advised to become more forensic in his own questioning of Johnson - as he knows he will have more chances than any journalist to pin down his rival.

There are sixteen hustings meetings in front of party members nationwide but the media are barred from asking questions at them. Hunt is being urged to become ‘the journalist’s journalist’, pinning down his rival. “We’ve got to expose him for what he is,” one Hunt ally confided.

A prime aim will be to expose all the different promises Johnson has made on Brexit to different wings of the party. One example is that he has allegedly told the European Research Group that May’s withdrawal agreement is ‘dead’. Yet he has never said that publicly, aware that it sounds like a recipe for no-deal that would cost vital parliamentary support inside and outside the party.

The hustings may not be Hunt’s natural format. Unlike Gove, an experienced debater, he has always looked slightly uncomfortable in the cut-and-thrust of Commons question time.

And it was telling that more than 30 years ago, Hunt and Johnson took very different paths in student politics during their time at Oxford in the mid-1980s. Johnson, a captain of the Eton debating team, targeted the Oxford Union presidency as it played to his strengths as a showman.

The quieter, mild-mannered Hunt focused on the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), and party politics. Both were well-worn routes to one day becoming PM, but one involved more front-of-house theatrics, the other backroom deal-making.

Meanwhile, back in the here and now, the Johnson team are set to rise above the fray.

Back inside Committee Room 14 on Thursday evening, Boris backer and office swapper Sir Mike Penning was among the core of supporters who banged desks in approval as their candidate came top.

Afterwards, key aide Conor Burns, by now a brilliant mimic of his boss’s accent and verbal tics, did an impression of his master’s voice. “Come on! We are going to get this over the line!” he joked.

Burns then swiftly underlined the seriousness of the cause. “We wanted at every stage to make progress, we wanted to go to the country with more than half the parliamentary Conservative party voting for Boris. That’s a really strong mandate and message to our members in the country.”

Aware that the attack lines are coming from Hunt, Burns added that Johnson would rise above negativity to unify the party. “We don’t talk about other candidates, we don’t attack other candidates.”

And he also moved to dispel all those swirling rumours of ‘dirty tricks’ and vote-loans to Hunt. “Boris was absolutely clear throughout, anyone who wanted Boris to win should vote for Boris. That was the line from Day One: No pissing around,” he said.

No pissing around. That may not quite be the official campaign slogan, but it certainly feels like the real message as Johnson sets his satnav for No.10.