Euan McColm: Tories’ last chance to give Boris Johnson a serious challenger

It will take some expert 'footwork to kick the former foreign secretary's campaign into touch. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
It will take some expert 'footwork to kick the former foreign secretary's campaign into touch. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
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The second most popular contender among party members is the only who can expose the bumptious Johnson to proper scrutiny, writes Euan McColm

‘The thing about him,” one of the MPs twitching to make Boris Johnson the next prime minister of the United Kingdom told me, “is that he’s not really like that. He just said those things for effect.”

We should not worry about his racist remarks, about his description of black people as “piccaninnies” or his suggestion that Muslim women look like “bank robbers” because he doesn’t really mean these things. We should disregard his dismissal of gay men as “bum boys” because, actually, you see, he’s a great believer in equality. And we must not allow his “f*** business” response to the concerns, over Brexit, of sundry chief executives to trouble us because, of course, he’s actually deeply concerned about the future of the economy and understands the importance of the success of British business.

So utterly perverted has our politics become that Johnson’s dishonesty is, it appears, meant to reassure us. The runaway favourite in the contest to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and, thus, prime minister should not be judged by the things he has said and done because, well, he didn’t believe the things he has said and done. And anyone who continues to harbour concerns should take comfort from the fact that his remarks do not, in any way, reflect his beliefs.

If, say, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage had said or written any of the hateful or provocative things that Johnson has, would we accept a similar defence? No, of course we would not. We would judge him harshly for them. We would say that his remarks confirmed our suspicions.

But Johnson? Well, he’s a special case. He’s the man who says racist, homophobic and sexist things while being opposed to racism, homophobia and sexism; the man who says business can get f***ed while standing firmly on the side of business.

Johnson has left his fellow contenders in the Tory leadership contest in his dust. In the first round of the process, he won more votes than the next three candidates – Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Dominic Raab – combined.

The former mayor of London, a man who chose to play a leading role in the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum not because he believed in the project but because he reckoned backing Brexit gave him the best chance of becoming prime minister appears to be unstoppable.

But is there a glimmer of hope for those who believe that decency and honesty should matter in politics? Is there a way to prevent a shameless liar becoming the next leader of this diminished United Kingdom?

Indeed there is, but it will require men and women of integrity in the Conservative parliamentary group to stand up and for some to put the country before their own egos.

At this stage of the leadership election process, MPs are all-powerful. Through a series of votes, with stragglers dropping out in each round, they are in the process of whittling down the original 10 runners to a final two who will then be presented to party members. These members – 160,000 of them – will then select who is to be the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street.

The first round of voting last week saw Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, and Mark Harper fail to win enough backing to make it to stage two. The withdrawal of Matt Hancock on Friday reduced the number of contenders further.

There are now six in the race and, so far as I can see, the best chance of stopping a Johnson victory lies with the candidate currently in last place among MPs.

Rory Stewart is clinging on, hoping that he can make it through another vote on Tuesday. Relatively unknown, Stewart has run by far the most impressive campaign of this contest. While Johnson hides away, kept out of the spotlight by supportive MPs who believe a politician they can’t trust to speak in public without creating a crisis is the best person to lead the UK, Stewart has traversed the country, inviting voters to meet him, to debate with him and – gosh, this is novel – challenge him.

There are echoes of Ruth Davidson’s successful campaign to become Tory leader in 2011, when the words “I’m not a Tory, but…” signalled that some voters who would previously never have considered lending their support to the party were willing to give the Conservatives a try. This came to pass and the Tories overtook Labour in Scotland at the last Holyrood election.

Polling of party members shows that Stewart is now – a distant, I grant you – second to Johnson. He is a long-shot but Gove, Raab, Hunt, and Sajid Javid have less support.

The likelihood is that Johnson will defeat whoever he faces in the final run-off. Tory MPs who believe – and there are many of them – that Johnson is not fit for the highest office who wish, at least, to try to prevent this outcome should now come behind Stewart. This rather eccentric former diplomat has been refreshingly frank about the place in which the UK now finds itself and about how Brexit might be delivered.

While Johnson’s line that, under his premiership, the UK will depart the EU by 31 October, come what may, ignores the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic that prevented Theresa May delivering Brexit, Stewart’s position takes full account of the real world. He has committed himself to delivering Brexit but recognises that the No Deal scenario which Johnson chunters on about is neither achievable nor desirable.

Some of Stewart’s opponents in the Conservative Party mutter about the fact he has engaged with and received warm words from voters who might normally support Labour or the Liberal Democrats. This is proof that he’s not really a Tory, they say, ignoring the fact that – objectively – a leader who can reach out across traditional party lines is a good thing when it comes to winning elections.

If Johnson faces Gove, Raab, Hunt, or Javid in the final vote, he will sweep them aside.

If Johnson faces Stewart, he will probably do the same but he will at least face a serious challenger offering serious answers to serious questions.

The United Kingdom deserves a contest in which Boris Johnson – a man who has built a career on lies – is properly scrutinised. Only the participation of the distinctively different Rory Stewart in the final round will guarantee this.