Comment: Ignore the hype – Boris won’t become Tory leader

By Des Brown

On the beautiful warm sunny afternoon of May 3rd, 1997, after leading the Conservatives to a massive election defeat, John Major quit Downing Street and drove off to the Oval for "a leisurely lunch and a soothing afternoon of cricket". Major gave the impression of couldn't wait to get out of the job. He was sick of his party and the feeling was mutual.  This will be true of Cameron should he loose the May 2015 general election.

In a crisis and fearing their electoral survival, the Conservatives usually turn on their leader.  Margaret Thatcher in 1990, John Major in 1995 and Ian Duncan Smith in 2003 are all solid examples. A hardcore of dissenters on the Conservative right like to promote Boris Johnson as a challenger, a future PM who can transfer his London popularity to a national level. In truth, there's little chance of Cameron being ousted prior to a general election and even less of Johnson replacing him.

There would only be a vacancy as Conservative leader if the party was lose the general election in two years time.   Johnson's tenure as Major of London is until the spring of 2016 and he isn't even an MP.  

Would Cameron stay on as leader after a May 2015 electoral defeat?  Alex Douglas Home did following the Conservatives losing power in October 1964.  He remained until July 1965.  His successor Edward Heath famously lingered for a full year following his February 1974 ousting from Downing Street.  James Callaghan remained Labour leader for 18 months following his trouncing in May 1979.  However, John Major remained as leader for just 7 weeks until his successor was elected and Gordon Brown quit straight away.  Nonetheless, Cameron and the Conservatives will share a mutual feeling of being glad to see the back of each other.  So the idea of him staying on as a seat warmer for a year until Boris Johnson was available will be as implausible as it is unappealing.

The scenario which brings Johnson to the top job in Tory politics is so convoluted as to be nigh impossible.  Firstly, Cameron would need to remain leader until 2016 so as not to force a leadership contest.  Then, Johnson would need to announce he was not standing for re-election as Major of London.  This would mean forsaking a job at which he is both good and popular, and, at the same time, risk a Labour victory in the mayoral elections.    Johnson would then need to fight a by-election in a safe Conservative seat and win.  Once in parliament he would then have contest a leadership election – one he'd have no guarantee of winning (unless it was a gerrymandered no-opposition contest such as the one which brought Gordon Brown into Downing Street).   And even if Johnson did become Conservative leader, the party he would be leading would be defeated and divided in opposition.  They'd spend the remaining four years of the parliament arguing about Europe.  The cliché of the poison chalice has never been more apt and staying put in the London Assembly building never more agreeable.

Boris Johnson was a risk for the Tory party as their candidate for mayor of London as he'd never run anything before. Yet, he was elected in May 2008 and re-elected in May 2012 and is now Britain's most popular politician and the most successful of the Bullingdon club alumni. Johnson has a generous and good-natured persona, so it's easy to see his appeal, even if he is the only person outside of PG Woodhouse to use the words 'crickey' and 'crumbs'.

He is also a much more progressive and liberal politician than the right seem to understand.  A few right-wing noises on Europe doesn't make him one of their own.   Being mayor of London has a great advantage over being prime minister – he doesn't have to lead the Conservative party.  Johnson understands modern Britain in the way the Tory right and Ukip simply don’t.  He doesn't dream of returning to a better yesterday, unlike the right in their belief that leaving the EU, stopping immigration and increasing the defence budget will return us to a halcyon 1950s. Johnson is progressive and forward looking.   Like Heseltine before him, he'll join the list of the best prime ministers we never had.

So if not Johnson, then who? Cameron should keep calm and carry on. The right-wing of his own party plead their cause in front of think-tanks, write books only political journalists read and scribble down newspaper columns read only by the already converted. The right has no standard barer, no figure around which to congregate – unlike 1974/75 when it had Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. There is David Davis, but he is an ordinary back-bencher who lacks much in the way of influence. It's largely forgotten that when David Cameron was elected Tory leader in 2005 he was seen as the heir to Thatcher (which they would never describe him as now). Similarly, on that dark autumn night in November 1990 when MPs elected John Major as PM he was widely regarded as Thatcher in trousers. Five years later the right under John Redwood were challenging him for the leadership.

What's fascinating about the Tory right is where in the world they look for role models. Traditionally, they turned towards the United States, but Obama is in the White House and they regard him as nothing less than a socialist (which he isn't). France is a no-go area as it has Francois Hollande as president. The same applies to Germany under Angela Merkel (who is actually a right of centre politician, but – in their eyes – might as well be a Socialist).   So instead they're besotted by Nigel Farage. His success is not a marker of the vitality of the Tory right, but of its desperation.

Des Brown is a blogger behind Be Not Afeard the Isle is Full of Noises, about the cultural, social and political life of Great Britain.  He also writes for the Newcastle Free Press and The Moscow Times.

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