Boris is unlikely to be a 10-year PM but he might well win a GE
This has not been Boris Johnson’s finest week. A series of humiliating defeats in Westminster, an underwhelming PMQs, harangued on the campaign trail, caught out using policemen for partisan ends and left to dangle in Number 10 without either an electoral escape or a means of leaving the EU by the foolishly promised 31 October.
Of course, there may be some great grand plan cooked up by Dominic Cummings’ strategic genius behind these no-doubt tactical defeats. The Tory Party is more united in Westminster, by virtue of having forced out one way or another almost two dozen rebel MPs, albeit that the cost is a government further from a majority than any since 1924.
But for all the problems, the Tories retain a comfortable lead in the polls (7% with Hanbury yesterday, 10% with YouGov on Wednesday, for example): probably enough to secure a majority provided that there isn’t significant tactical voting between Labour and the Remain parties.
I doubt there will be significant tactical voting – or if so, only one way. This occurs where two or more parties are perceived to be close enough that supporters of the third are more motivated to keep the ‘other side’ to tolerate actively letting their second-preferred option in. However, do Labour and the Lib Dems share such a close commonality? I don’t think they do, either in the Brexit stance or on other matters. Granted, the distance to the Tories is even greater but Labour isn’t a Remain party – it’s policy is still to negotiate its own Brexit deal – and on economic matters, the gap is similarly large.
Now, it might well be that Boris Johnson’s abilities as a campaigner are overrated. Yes, he won London in 2012 (against Ken Livingstone but also very much against the national polls, never mind the London trend), and he played a huge part in winning the EU referendum. But are those skills still there? It’s a different business being prime minister when you have a record to defend and detail to master. That he hid away during the Tory leadership campaign was telling. I wonder if he’d try it in a general election, as May did?
But let’s assume he can pull through and secure a second term. He is, after all, up against Jeremy Corbyn and a deeply divided Labour Party on both Brexit and domestic policy. Corbyn had a stormer of an election in 2017 but he was given space and also a campaign that very much played to his strengths. If a 2019 election was all about Brexit, Corbyn might well struggle.
What of Farage and the Brexit Party? Certainly, if Johnson fails to achieve Brexit by Halloween, Farage will attempt to berate the Tories for a broken promise but will that work? Johnson’s defence – “parliament blocked me: I have cleared out the rebels now give me the mandate” could be effective, particularly if combined with a tactical appeal not to split the Leave vote.
None of this is at all guaranteed but it should be taken as a plausible starting point. What then?
If Johnson does win a Tory majority, that might well stick through to 2024 – but would he? The evidence from the last week, combined with the challenges that a No Deal Brexit would bring, have to suggest that whatever the result of the election, Johnson won’t be in Number 10 for the long term.
Which raises an interesting question because the shortest-priced Tories to be next PM, now that Ken Clarke (14/1) is no longer a Tory MP, are Sajid Javid, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove (all 33/1). This is far too long a price for any ‘governing party’ favourite – even co-favourites; all the more so when that party is clear in the polls.
Of the three, Rees-Mogg is once again the least value. His performance this week was once again that of a man out of touch with both Westminster and the wider world. He is more likely to be the first Johnson cabinet resignation than the next leader. On the other hand, both Javid (who could have been the first resignation), and Gove are surely value.
Beyond those two, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel are 50/1 and 66/1 respectively. Had the Tories the Labour election system, both would be very good value given the changing Tory membership, however the MPs still get to pick the final two in any contest. Given the challenges the Home Office is likely to face post-Brexit, and Patel’s not-entirely-empirical approach, I don’t think there’s much value for her even at those prices. Raab, by contrast, may be.
In reality, there is so much uncertainty about when the next Tory leadership election will be, and who the candidates will be, that it’s very much a shot in the dark. There is a fair chance that then next leader isn’t even quoted by bookies. On the other hand, it could be soon. Boris could lose the election or if he wins, may not survive long. If so, the likely successor is someone from the current top table.