LONDON – Supporters of Boris Johnson, who looks certain to become the next British prime minister, hail his optimistic vision for post-Brexit Britain and insist he will have a team to take care of the details.
“If he’s got good people around him, he’ll be fine,” said 67-year-old backer Sue Busby, a grassroots member of the governing Conservative Party, which looks set to propel Johnson to power this week.
The former London mayor has wooed Conservatives with a promise to get Britain out of the European Union. If elected party leader, he will take over from Theresa May as prime minister on Wednesday.
A postal ballot of 160,000 party members is expected to return Johnson as the new Conservative leader over Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt when the result is announced on Tuesday. Bookmakers give Hunt a chance of victory of around 1 in 15.
While Johnson spent a relatively trouble-free Saturday, Hunt, his successor in the Foreign Office, was dealing with Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf.
The center-right Conservatives command a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, and Johnson’s opponents — both within and outside the party — are keen to scupper his leadership.
But critics are alarmed at how Johnson seems to struggle with the finer points of Brexit and question his attention to detail in previous jobs.
As foreign minister, he misrepresented the case of a British-Iranian woman held in Tehran. As London mayor, he was accused of backing big projects that turned out to be expensive flops.
However, some of those who worked with him while he ran London from 2008 to 2016 say he surrounds himself with talented people.
“Although he’s very much in control, and it’s his vision, he is good at delegating,” said Victoria Borwick, who served for three years as deputy mayor.
Another former colleague said Johnson is “very much ‘big vision.’ Once he got a team he trusted, he’d leave you to get on with it.” While he could master the detail when required, on some issues, “there’s an element of winging it.”
Johnson has brought back some of the old London team to help him in his leadership bid, including former chief of staff Edward Lister and former communications chief Will Walden. The campaign also includes many current and former MPs and ministers, some of them longtime supporters and others who have fallen in behind the man who seemed destined from the start to win.
But as a result, he is leading a coalition of people who do not always agree.
Johnson has promised to take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31, and says all his ministers must back this approach.
Opponents of Brexit — and especially of a no-deal departure — are plotting moves against Johnson. Some Conservatives have hinted they are prepared to bring down their own government rather than accept leaving the EU without a deal.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said he will quit the government if Johnson becomes prime minister. He told The Sunday Times newspaper that a no-deal Brexit would trigger national “humiliation.”
The broadsheet reported that up to six europhile Conservative MPs were considering defecting to the centrist, pro-EU Liberal Democrats should Johnson win — leaving him without a Commons majority.
But the main opposition party, Labour, is riven with infighting over Brexit, anti-Semitism and leftist Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Johnson’s campaign supporters range from hard-line euroskeptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who previously said he did not believe a no-deal exit was a viable policy.
“A lot of those people will be looking for rewards in terms of jobs in government” if he wins, noted Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government think tank.
“There are lots of views about what Theresa May did wrong and how things should be done differently.
“How much will he have to intervene to sort out any disputes between them?”
Another important issue is to what extent ministers will themselves have to manage the unpredictable and gaffe-prone Johnson if he reaches No. 10 Downing St.
Despite starting the race with a huge lead, Johnson’s campaign team has played it safe, limiting his media appearances and toning down his rhetoric.
When he was mayor, his staff also sought to keep him away from certain delicate situations, according to London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “He never once met the rail unions directly as mayor, for instance. … They kept him away because they knew it would go wrong,” it reported.
Johnson is proud of his record in London, pointing to low levels of crime, investment in transport and housing as proof of his ability to get things done.
But critics cite expensive projects such as a cable car across the Thames, an aborted garden bridge and his decision to buy second-hand water cannons that police were not allowed to use. One supporter said the cable car was underused because it was in the wrong place, which was not Johnson’s fault.
But, for his critics, this overreliance on his team goes to the heart of the problem.
“He’s great on rhetoric but lousy on delivery,” Steve Norris, a former Conservative candidate for London mayor, told The Guardian newspaper.