Rory Stewart, who has been and remains the most interesting thing about the Conservative leadership contest, offered up this thought via twitter earlier this week – “I’m beginning to think there are only two candidates who can beat Boris – me, and Boris himself…”
He only scraped into the second round of the contest, so Stewart is being optimistic naming himself. But the other part of his observation raises the question – is there anything that can stop Johnson?
The remaining six challengers will spend the weekend scrapping amongst themselves to pick up the 30 votes up for grabs, and try and steal more from one another.
Meanwhile, Johnson can continue his submarine strategy of doing and saying almost nothing at all, safe in the knowledge that his name is already pencilled onto the ballots that will be sent to party members, who will choose between the final two candidates.
His tally of MPs will only go higher as more Tories succumb to the irresistible pull of backing a winner and being in the running for jobs in the next government.
Whether it’s Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove or Sajid Javid, the challenger on the members’ ballot must hope that Johnson is forced to leave his bunker for the final contest.
But while the conventional wisdom in Tory leadership races is that the favourite rarely wins, there is nothing to suggest that the shrunken party membership at a time of maximum Brexit polarisation won’t maintain their worship of Boris. They see him as the only chance of fending off Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, an existential threat to the Conservatives.
Proposed TV debates between the full field and between the final two candidates could be damaging for Johnson – but that was said of the Leave campaign in 2016, when he represented the Brexit side in some of those debates.
Johnson was ganged up on, including by Ruth Davidson, but emerged unscathed. He would relish a national roadshow in which he pulls pints in every pub and cricket club in every Tory constituency, showing how different a leader he would be from Theresa May, and how he could energise a general election campaign. It isn’t yet clear that Hunt, Gove or Javid could do the same.
Anyway, a crucial factor is this: the final Tory leadership vote is a postal ballot. Most of the electorate will put a cross in the box and have the envelope in the post before they’ve even heard from either of the final two candidates.
Perhaps not even Boris can stop himself. So if we’re destined to see Prime Minister Johnson in Downing Street, is there anything that can stop the consequences?
He says the UK must leave the EU on 31 October, come what may. That means a no-deal Brexit, because contrary to what some of the remaining leadership challengers claim, there is no deal that can be negotiated and ratified by Hallowe’en without a significant further extension to Article 50.
Johnson has reportedly been telling Brexiteers and Remainers among his supporters exactly what they want to hear – to the latter, that he’ll work to get a deal; to the former, that he’s willing to suspend parliament to force through no-deal.
As Jeremy Corbyn warned on Wednesday after Labour’s bid to block no-deal failed, Tory ministers “won’t be laughing come September” – because a Johnson premiership almost certainly means a vote of no confidence.
Dominic Grieve has already threatened to vote to bring down the government if the next Prime Minister pushes for a no-deal Brexit. Only a handful of Tory MPs need to follow through on that threat for a snap election to become a reality.
A general election before the UK has left the EU, would be an open invitation to the Brexit Party to inflict maximum pain on the Conservatives. It would also present Scottish Labour with an impossible choice, if Corbyn was open to working with the SNP to form a government.
Under Prime Minister Johnson, 2019 has plenty more political drama in store.