Those who may be positioning themselves as the next Tory leader may be waiting a little while longer
The political dynamics of Brexit dominate the headlines. The events of last weekend were no exception. Boris Johnson’s recent article in The Daily Telegraph reveals the brewing discontent with the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy, adding more strain to what is already a contentious issue. In his article, Johnson conveys a different vision of how Britain should depart from the EU. Equally controversial, he also threw back into the mix the Leave campaign’s infamous claim that leaving the EU will give the NHS an extra £350 million a week.
Statisticians dealt with the latter while fellow Ministers dealt with the former. Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK statistics authority, wrote to Mr Johnson saying he was “surprised and disappointed” that the Foreign Secretary had used the figure in his article. Showing clear disapproval also was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who labelled Mr Johnson’s intervention as “back-seat driving” and did not want him “managing the Brexit process.”
Amongst all the controversy surrounding Johnson’s 4,000-word essay came speculation of a leadership bid. But Mr Johnson seems to have been in a constant leadership bid for years. He came close in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, and has perhaps been relishing another opportunity to take the top spot since.
However, the idea that Theresa May will be replaced anytime soon is far-fetched – it ignores the political realities of the times.
To begin with, there does not seem to be any suitable replacements. Mr Johnson, although perceived as the biggest threat to the Prime Minister, is perhaps not as popular as people may believe. In his book The Betting House: the Inside Story of the 2017 Election, Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s former Joint Chief of Staff, revealed a secret poll conducted before June’s election which showed that “nobody in the Cabinet [was] popular”, including Mr Johnson.
But this increasingly negative perception of the former London Mayor is not just limited to Cabinet members. A recent poll conducted by Conservative Home, a right-wing political blog, showed that only 7.5% of Conservative Party activists wanted Mr Johnson as the next leader of the party, behind David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Johnson’s intervention has done more to unite the Conservative Party behind Theresa May than to boost his own leadership chances. As such, it is doubtful that he would be able to obtain the support of the forty-eight MPs required for another leadership challenge.
The alternative potential candidates do not appear much better. Amber Rudd has been talked of as a possible leader after Mrs May, but the thin majority she scraped after June’s election in her Hastings seat makes this idea less promising than before. In addition, Jacob Rees-Mogg has repeatedly denied any inclinations to become the next party leader, despite the rise of ‘MoggMentum’. The hype surrounding the Member of North-East Somerset may be more ‘style over substance’ since he has never held a ministerial position in his political career.
Among many Conservative Party members, there is little appetite for another leadership contest, Indeed, it would put an unnecessary pause on the Brexit negotiations, making it harder to achieve a good deal.
May will not be replaced as leader in the short-term because it would be inconvenient to do so. Even when, in the aftermath of June’s snap election, Mrs May’s popularity plummeted, her resignation only would have only infused more unwanted instability. While it is true the disappointing election result means it is unlikely Mrs May will lead her party into the next one, such an election could only take place after negotiations have ended and Britain officially leaves the EU (after March 2019). It is unlikely anyone will be able to budge the Prime Minister off her pedestal until then.
Whatever Mr Johnson’s intentions, he will not be ousting Mrs May for a while. But, if his hunger for leadership lives on beyond the remainder of her premiership, Mr Johnson’s chances could be much better. Only time will tell.