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What next for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party?

Professor Tim Bale reflects on Boris Johnson’s planned return to the House of Commons, and asks if he has what it takes to make it to the top.

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So the worst-kept secret in British politics is no longer a secret. Boris Johnson is on the lookout for a constituency willing to select him as their Conservative candidate at the election next May.

He won’t have trouble finding one – and, just as importantly, one that will guarantee him safe passage into parliament. Anyone who’s ever been to a Tory Party conference will testify to Boris’s pulling power. It used to be said of Michael Heseltine – another Conservative politician with blond ambition – that “he knew how to find the clitoris of the Conservative Party”. Boris Johnson is equally familiar with his party’s erogenous zones.

But today’s news isn’t all about Boris. It’s also about David Cameron. By finally making his intentions known, Johnson is going to find it difficult to deflect accusations that he is, in effect, casting a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister’s chances of winning a convincing majority in 2015. There are three equally tantalising scenarios on offer.

The first is that the Conservatives don’t even end up as the largest party and Cameron is summarily ejected from Downing Street, in which case he would immediately resign, leaving the way clear for Boris to fight a leadership contest against, in all probability, George Osborne and Theresa May and possibly one or two other, darker horses – odds on Chris Grayling anyone?

The second is that Cameron makes it back into Downing Street as leader of a second coalition, in which case he spends the following couple of years building up to a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – one which, if he loses, will virtually oblige him to stand down or, if he wins, may well see him stay on another year or so before calling it a day and doing something rather less taxing instead. Cue the leadership election outlined above.

The third is that Cameron makes it back into Downing Street as the leader of a Conservative government with either an uncomfortably small or non-existent majority. If he’s lucky, he holds the ring, fights the referendum, and ditto. If he’s unlucky, he enjoys a brief honeymoon or else no honeymoon at all, and then – after trying but failing to keep his parliamentary party in order – faces a vote of no-confidence triggered by the kamikaze squadron seated on the benches behind him. Cue the leadership … You get the picture.

Favourite son

Whatever, Boris is, on the face of it at least, nicely placed to take over – all the more so perhaps because Tory Eurosceptics won’t have failed to notice that he’s moved more and more firmly towards (without ever actually fully joining) the “Better Off Out” camp. If there is a leadership election, this could be a huge help in ensuring that he is one of the two people chosen by MPs to go forward to the run-off vote among the wider membership.

There, he is – on current form at least – the clear favourite. In a scientific poll of the Conservative Party grassroots which we undertook last summer with the help of YouGov, we found that Boris Johnson was way out in front, with 38% of first preferences – double the number given to Theresa May and a long way ahead of George Osborne who picked up just three per cent of them.
Boris, we found, goes down particularly well in London – no surprise there, perhaps, although there is just the faintest possibility that Tory members in the capital will resent the implication of his decision that being mayor is a part-time job. No surprise, given his media profile, that he goes down better than his putative competitors among younger members – although, given the fact the average Tory Party member is approaching retirement age, this is probably no great cause for celebration in the Boris camp.

Boris’s woman trouble

Boris, we should note, also needs to worry about women. Although they make up a minority of the Conservative Party, we found quite a marked difference between the proportion of male and female members willing to give him their first preference: for men, the figure was 41%; for women, it was just 32%. Quite why that’s the case, I will leave for others to speculate.

The real test for Boris will come both before – and if he makes it through – after a membership ballot. There are many Tory MPs who don’t trust him as far as they can throw him, and possibly even more who are jealous of him. Many remember his previous sojourn in parliament, which wasn’t particularly impressive on any count. They can also read the polling, which has long indicated that, while members of the British public love Boris as they love virtually no other politician, they don’t really see him as prime ministerial material.

If he makes it into the Commons and there is no immediate leadership contest because Cameron remains PM, then Boris will be given a job to do – one that will either give him a real chance to show he can actually perform at the highest level or else will give him more than enough rope to hang himself.

If, in the end, Boris does make it to the top of the greasy pole in the Tory Party, the question will be whether he can persuade voters that he has enough gravitas and competence to run the country and, whether it be at home or abroad, not to say or do anything too silly.

We know he’s a charmer. And he’s certainly a chancer. But do enough of us think, in our heart of hearts, that, deep down, he’s really got what it takes to do a grown-up job in a nation that still regards itself as a world power? We may very well soon find out.

Tim Bale is Professor Politics at Queen Mary University of London.  He is the author of two books on the Tories 'The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron' (Polity, 2011) and 'The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change' (OUP, 2012).  His latest book is the third edition of his 'European Politics: a Comparative Introduction' (Palgrave, 2013). He tweets @ProfTimBale. He is also course director of the new MA in British Politics, which starts in September 2014.

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