LONDON – For a man who has made his name as a comical shambles, cracking jokes on talk-shows and scruffing up his famous blond mop, Boris Johnson is taking a deadly serious approach to his work.
At 54, the former foreign secretary has lost weight, trimmed his hair and hired a campaign manager to win the support of his peers and plot his path to Number 10 Downing Street.
On Thursday, Johnson announced he will stand as a candidate to succeed Theresa May when she formally quits as leader of the Conservatives and U.K. prime minister. According to bookmakers, party members, and those who have watched his career closely, Johnson stands a very good chance of winning.
“It is a rough rule of thumb that the more trouble the Conservative Party is in, the more likely its members are to turn to Boris Johnson,” said Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website.
And the Tories are in existential peril. For decades, they have thought of themselves as the natural party of government. Now the Conservatives are disastrously divided by Brexit.
‘Change the atmosphere’
Nigel Farage, the leader of the newly formed Brexit Party, is stealing euroskeptic votes away from them, and polls suggest he could even win this month’s European Parliament elections. That will send a wave of panic through the Tory party at the damage Farage could do to their hopes of retaining power nationally.
The Tories will feel they need a savior to replace May, someone who can defeat both Farage and Labour’s socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who proved himself a capable campaigner in the 2017 election.
According to a ConservativeHome survey of 1,100 Tory supporters last month, Johnson is the preferred candidate for 32 percent of party members, with his next nearest rival, former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, on 15 percent.
If the Tories think they need “someone who can change the atmosphere” rather than a managerial figure, they’re more likely to opt for Johnson, according to his biographer, Andrew Gimson. Like President Donald Trump, Johnson’s populist appeal could make the difference in a hard-fought general election campaign.
Johnson is a proven winner who has defeated the Labour Party twice in naturally left-wing London to become the mayor. According to Gimson, this will be a reassuring prospect for Conservative politicians worried that the party’s disarray over the so-called British exit could see them lose their seats in Parliament at the next election.
Goodman said Johnson’s appeal will be based on his “star quality,” name recognition and “strong qualifications” as a Brexit campaigner. But nothing is certain. The next leadership election is likely to be the most contested in history, with more than 20 potential candidates currently jostling for a run. That makes it highly unpredictable.
A Johnson leadership would also carry risks for the Tories. Since fronting the Brexit campaign three years ago, he has been a hate figure for those dejected pro-Europeans who voted to remain in the bloc. The campaign was hugely contentious and the country remains bitterly divided. That suggests almost half of voters could have a reason not to support him.
Johnson has also been prone to making major public gaffes — his life-long role as an entertainer with a joke always at the ready landed him in hot water as foreign secretary. When he tried to run for the leadership in 2016, Michael Gove, who was coordinating his campaign, quit and stood as a rival because he just didn’t believe Johnson was capable of running the country.
If Johnson were to become prime minister, it would be a dramatic political turn-around. A year ago, he was fighting in vain inside May’s divided cabinet to deliver the kind of quick, clean Brexit that he believed would be a faithful reflection of the public’s 2016 vote to quit the European Union. After leading the Vote Leave campaign, Johnson knew he would get the blame if Brexit went wrong and felt responsible for seeing the project through.
But he failed. In July 2018, Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, one of the most prestigious positions in government, and a job that he loved. For months afterwards, Johnson cut a dejected and somewhat lonely figure in Westminster. He split from his wife amid reports of a string of affairs, and struggled to make a major impact in Parliament with his interventions in the Brexit debates.
Johnson and his team decided to take a consciously low profile, shunning media interviews and preferring instead to concentrate on setting out policy positions in columns for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. He ranged far beyond Brexit, proposing ideas on issues such as health and crime, as part of a careful plan to re-set his public image for a run at the leadership.
One of Johnson’s weaknesses in the past has been a failure to win enough support in Parliament. Unless he can convince Tory MPs to put his name on the ballot paper that then goes to the party’s wider grass-roots membership, he has no chance of becoming leader.
And this time, Johnson’s not taking chances, according to one person familiar with his plans. Johnson has hired James Wharton, a former Tory MP and minister as his campaign coordinator, to help woo supporters in the House of Commons and professionalize his office.
Johnson also remains close friends with Lynton Crosby, the Conservative election strategist who helped him win those two mayoral elections and delivered an unexpected majority victory for David Cameron as prime minister in 2015. Although Crosby has no formal role with Johnson, the pair speak daily and are likely to join forces when the campaign gets under way.
Johnson has been touring the country, entertaining local party gatherings with speeches over dinners, and meeting voters.
One MP arrived in Johnson’s office recently for a face-to-face meeting. But the Tory was disheartened to see a wall chart divided into 15-minute slots, each containing the name of one of his colleagues who would be meeting the candidate later.
For Johnson’s team, who are more used to handling gaffes and mishaps, being criticized for being too organized is a something they are happy to take.