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Johnson’s campaign will probably succeed – but he’ll alienate people he needs

When the names of the final two Tory leadership candidates were announced, there were celebrations among Boris Johnson’s backers. Joining the Tory leadership frontrunner in the final was not his old foe Michael Gove but Jeremy Hunt. The foreign secretary beat Gove to second place by a mere two votes. Hunt was the candidate the Johnson campaign wanted to join him in the final. The view is that he poses the least threat as he voted remain and isn’t as skilled a debater as Gove.

However, not everyone was so impressed with the result. Tory MPs quickly began to cry foul play and suggest dirty tricks. The reason? The numbers don’t add up. After Sajid Javid was knocked out in the first secret ballot of the day, at least four of his backers said they would now vote for Boris Johnson. Yet despite this, Johnson only managed to muster three more votes in total in the final ballot that afternoon. The suggestion is that Johnson supporters “lent” their votes to Hunt in order to secure a weaker opponent.

Suspicions hang in the air, too, over previous rounds. Ahead of the BBC debates, the only fellow hard Brexiteer in the competition, Dominic Raab, was eliminated. This meant that in the debate that night Johnson couldn’t be out-Brexited or pushed into boxing himself in with further Brexit promises. The next day Rory Stewart was kicked out of the competition – mysteriously losing 10 votes. He has suggested “dark arts” were at play. In some quarters, the finger of blame is being pointed at Gavin Williamson – the former chief whip who revels in his reputation as a machiavellian character – who helped run the parliamentary part of the Johnson campaign.

And the allegations of dirty tricks go further than tactical voting. While the Johnson campaign has impressed with its efficiency and organisation, some have suggested that it is too heavy-handed and the tactics it has deployed belong more to the mafia than big tent politics. MPs complain that the pitch has often been focused on bad things that would happen if they didn’t back Johnson rather than good things that could happen if they did. “Dealing with the Boris campaign is like waking up with a horse’s head in your bed,” remarked one such MP.

This means that although Johnson stamped his authority in the parliamentary rounds by winning the support of over half the party, there is growing unease about whether a Johnson premiership could bring the party back together. One such MP has already gone public. Antoinette Sandbach shared a WhatsApp message she received from a male Tory MP which read: “You too are a disgrace. Time you left the party I think”. Sandbach complained that “barely is the ink dry on the results and the dark ops begin” – concluding: “Is it any wonder three female MPs left.” Another warning sign can be found in the fact that two MPs spoiled their ballot in the penultimate voting round – suggesting that they were not willing to be led by any of the remaining candidates.

The Johnson campaign hopes that the membership vote next month will give the new prime minister a clean mandate and political authority, pushing MPs with differing Brexit positions to fall into line. However, there’s a risk that a heavy-handed approach has the opposite effect and MPs decide to break rank and rebel – or leave the party altogether. The working Tory majority is so slim that even a couple of defections could mean that the next prime minister has no majority at all.

So, is it inevitable that Johnson will become prime minister? There’s a view among Johnson allies that they need to spend nearly as much time preparing to take office in the coming month as preparing for hustings against Hunt. There’s a rule in politics that the Tory leadership frontrunner never wins. Right now Johnson looks unassailable – but campaigns can throw up surprises that move things off kilter.

The first challenge has come in the form of Foreign Office minister Mark Field. The Conservative MP has been filmed grabbing a female climate change activist by the neck and pushing her out of a black-tie City event. The minister has now been suspended. Yet several Tory MPs have publicly come to his defence. Neither leadership candidate has made an intervention, but as Field and Hunt are longtime friends and Field has been a minister in his department, his response will come under particular scrutiny.

The hustings over the next month will see each of the candidates move from trying to win over MPs to appealing to the party membership. The risk, however, is that by pivoting to the Eurosceptic grassroots, they further isolate many of the MPs who are on the other end of the spectrum. With great challenges awaiting the next leader, the new prime minister will need these MPs. It follows that alarm bells should be ringing in the Johnson camp about the way this could play out. Otherwise even if Johnson succeeds, it could be a very short stint in No 10.

Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

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