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Boris is back. The former Foreign Secretary officially launched his leadership bid this morning – a bid which has been unofficially rumbling on since before Theresa May announced her resignation, or actually for about forty five years, since Johnson was in primary school.
In recent weeks showman Boris has been kept largely out of the public eye – despite making a bit of noise in Sunday papers with assorted policy pitches. The tactic seems to be keeping him tightly controlled for fear he landed himself in another classic Boris gaffe.
The front runner had the MPs out in droves today – Gavin Williamson, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Liz Truss were just some of the senior Conservatives in attendance. Populating the back of the room were some names from the wilder, hard-Brexit ERG camp – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Steve Baker were rubbing shoulders with the press pack, and one ERG MP could be heard quietly complaining that the team had reserved a seat for Laura Kuenssberg but not himself.
The pic n’mix assortment of MPs illustrates the problem facing Boris if he makes it to No 10. His support base is not coherent. Brexit “hardman” Steve Baker is no more compatible with former Cameroon Oliver Dowden than he was under Theresa May. And at some point Boris is going to have to reckon with this. But for now – not his problem.
No-one is more gaffe-prone yet gaffe-resistant than the former foreign secretary. It’s a curious mix – and a source of his appeal. But when it comes to a leadership bid his team seem to be taking no chances. That was reflected in the uncharacteristically dry speech, which meandered through Brexit, de-centralising investment from London, and his legacy as London Mayor.
The hope of his handlers was that by keeping Boris out of the headlines the other candidates would sink themselves, as they vie for the spotlight that Boris naturally commands. That seems to be the calculation anyway. He can’t make any screaming errors if he can’t say anything. But today in the most stage-managed public appearance he could possibly have put on he failed to deliver any of the expected Boris verve. Not even the packed room of cheering supporters could bring life to the occasion – and in the end, it was the cries of “Stop Brexit!” from outside the window that both unsettled the candidate and stole the show.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox introduced Johnson’s speech by proclaiming the need for a big, ebullient character to take charge of a struggling UK. He said “a managerial and bureaucratic approach to politics will not suffice,” just moments before Boris – against all his sensibilities – gave a managerial and robotic speech.
It’s an understandable strategy, until you ask where Boris’s appeal comes from in the first place. It has never come from people believing he is a grafter like May, or a policy brain like Michael Gove. It’s the charisma that has drawn in support from across the party. The character that Geoffrey Cox was talking about. When you take that out of the mix what are you left with? Why then back Boris?
It will still take nigh on a miracle to keep Boris off the ballot at this stage. Going into Thursday’s first-round of voting, he remains top of the pack with over twice as much declared support as next in the race Jeremy Hunt. He’s swept up the ERG support from under Dominic Raab’s feet, and also boasts the endorsements of moderates in the party, and the rising stars. And when it comes to the membership he is the most popular.
It is hard to see what it would take to sink Boris’s campaign. His proclivity to whip up a media storm over poorly phrased comments is likely already priced into the equation – but perhaps the campaign is right to take no chances. Low risk, high reward.