The Corner

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Time for Boris

Boris Johnson addresses delegates in Birmingham, England, October 2, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

In Tory leadership contests, candidates are knocked out in rounds, then the final two go before the party membership which — as of March 2018 — is 124,000 voters.

Boris Johnson is a shoo-in for the next round after he won 114 (of 303) votes, which is over a third of MPs, and which comfortably clears the 105-vote mark needed to secure a spot in the final. Second place was Jeremy Hunt with 43. And third was Michael Gove with 37.

Since May’s catastrophic overstay as prime minister (see here, here, and here), many conservative voters have been asking themselves: What now? How can a conservative party, which has failed to deliver Brexit, survive?

The answer arrived at with some reluctance, is Boris Johnson. At least for now.

The Threat

If someone had asked six years ago whether Jeremy Corbyn — a Marxist with a long history of supporting anti-Western ideologies and who, according to his ex-wife, didn’t read a single book in four years of marriage — might stand a chance at becoming Britain’s prime minister, the response, deservedly, would have been laughter. But no one is laughing now. As Johnson said during his leadership campaign, further delay to Brexit “means Corbyn.”

Corbyn became the leader of the Labour party in a landslide victory in 2015. Now Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (b. May 2019), having enjoyed great success in the EU elections, is positioned to split the Tory vote. In a general election — which could very well arrive before its scheduled date of 2022, and some think there will be one later this fall — this could allow Labour to creep up through the middle.

In 2014, Johnson helped redirect Vote Leave voters away from Farage’s UKIP party — which pushed anti-immigration sentiments — and toward the Tory mainstream. While Farage may be more of a symbolic threat, with politics so heavily defined by Brexit, a government that repeatedly fails to deliver the referendum result, is not a workable one. Johnson says that a Tory party that does not take the UK out of the EU by the next deadline — October 31st — will “kick the bucket.” Again, he’s right. The consequences of a potential Corbyn-led government don’t bear thinking about.

So, why Johnson? Well, as suggested by recent polling, he is really the only Tory candidate who could beat both Jeremy Corbyn and the Brexit Party. In fact, Electoral Calculus (which uses the ComRes voting intention figures), indicates that he would win a 140-seat majority for the Conservatives at the next general election if he were Prime Minister. See here:

The Strategy

Johnson maintains that he is determined to take the U.K. out of the EU by the deadline: deal or no deal. The former is his preference, but he says it is only responsible to prepare fully for the latter. Of course, it is impossible to predict whether or not the EU would respond by offering a better deal. They didn’t for May, but then it was so obvious that she was bluffing. There is also a risk to this approach: What if parliament — which is undergoing a Brexit-shaped constitutional crisis — finds a way to block Johnson’s no-deal? Would he then have to resign? If he didn’t, would he be able to win a general election? Would that solve the problem?

These are unknowns. However, if parliament blocks a no-deal Brexit, then surely it is parliament that will pay the political price.

Another obstacle facing Johnson is himself. Johnson, an attention seeker, has the tendency to make outlandish/offensive remarks which then set the news cycle for the week. There is no time for such distractions. And on this front, it’s been so far, so good.

During his campaign launch, Johnson gave a low-key message — emphasizing a clear and responsible Brexit position, as well as domestic policy. He appealed to his past history of electoral success: He was elected as Mayor of London twice, despite the capital being a Labour stronghold. And on Monday, he threw a bone to alienated Tory Remainers in the form of tax cuts.

The Man

Boris Johnson is many, many things. At least half of which are very unsettling. But at such a desperate juncture — for the party, for Brexit and for the country — the immediate question is: Can he win?

One former Johnson aide once told me that he’s “never been the type to read pages of policy briefings.” But she believes, as do others who know him well, that with the right team, these shortcomings can be compensated for. That the pros outweigh the cons. That he may, in fact, be the Tories’ last hope.

There are many, many things that Boris Johnson is not. Not least is Jeremy Corbyn.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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