Boris Johnson is now more likely to be the next Conservative leader than ever before – certainly at any point since the 2012 Olympics when he was very much the face of London, albeit not an MP.
Mr Johnson’s ambition is well known. And while he will doubtless be troubled by events of recent weeks, which have included the continuation of hostilities within Tory ranks over Europe, the collapse of a major UK industry and a difficult Budget for the Government, he won’t have failed to recognise the impact these events have had on some of his leadership rivals. Meanwhile, he’s emerged more or less unscathed.
That Mr Johnson can be recognised when simply referred to as ‘Boris’ demonstrates his ubiquitous appeal. He is popular amongst the public, and massively supported amongst the Conservative rank and file. But he remains somewhat unloved by many within the parliamentary party. Partly it’s because of his unashamed ambition, partly because Conservative MPs have questioned whether his bombastic, often comedic approach – while a potent electoral weapon – is suitable for a party leader or prime minister. And it’s also because others – notably George Osborne – have ensured that they are in positions to deal in patronage, whereas Mr Johnson is yet to hold such a position in Parliament.
The consequence is that Mr Johnson, for all his popularity, has never been a shoo-in for Conservative leader when David Cameron steps down. But his hand has been immeasurably strengthened by events of the past few weeks.
His presumptive primary challenger, George Osborne, has been damaged – albeit not grievously – by a Budget that quickly unraveled, particularly on cuts to disability benefits. Mr Osborne’s future is also bound to the outcome of the EU referendum (as indeed is Mr Johnson’s), and further defeat after the Budget could reduce his ambitions to ashes.
The Prime Minister is similarly feeling the strain. David Cameron’s fate and legacy, more than any other politician, is tethered to the EU referendum. He’s been further damaged by the so-called Panama Papers. Whether or not he benefitted financially from off-shore arrangements is largely a moot point – many within the public won’t make the distinction. Mr Cameron had pledged to crack down on tax avoidance and is tied to this saga. Now more than ever before his position is at very immediate risk if he fails to win the EU referendum.
Meanwhile, Business Secretary Sajid Javid – considered an outside bet for the Conservative leadership – is under enormous pressure over Tata’s decision to sell the Port Talbot steelworkers. Mr Javid’s position, despite Labour’s condemnation, is not untenable but his credentials as a star in the Tory ranks have been tarnished. His viability as an opponent to Boris Johnson has been damaged. And he is now a less useful advocate in support of his long-term ally and patron, George Osborne.
So with the Prime Minister in a difficult spot and the leadership credentials of both George Osborne and Sajid Javid having taken a body blow, who is left to stand against Boris in the inevitable Conservative leadership contest? Many will point to Theresa May, who’s been rather quiet of late. New Work & Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb has also been mooted, although his public profile is nowhere near that of Mr Johnson and Mrs May. One thing is for certain: Boris Johnson is more likely than ever before to be the next Conservative leader. A public vote to leave the EU could make his campaign unassailable.