Desperate Tories will turn to Boris to cover up their Brexit splits

Omar Salem

Labour MPs appearing on the media recently have seen a welcome change. Rather than discussing divisions on our side, it is splits in the Conservative Party that fill the programmes.

The media narrative now places Labour and the Tories in diametrically opposite places to where they were before the general election. Back then it was Labour that was divided, with a leader under threat and problems in the polls. Now that is the Conservative problem.

Theresa’s May’s speech at Tory conference was supposed to kickstart a turnaround in their fortunes. Instead, it was an utter disaster. It is easy to feel sympathetic for the PM. None of the disruptions to her speech – Boris Johnson’s manoeuvring, her coughing fit, the letters falling off the backdrop slogan and being presented with a P45 – were her fault. But politics can be cruel. Neil Kinnock knows that from his fall on Brighton beach.

Once a politician loses credibility with the public it can be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild it. When Gordon Brown marched the country to the top of the hill with the prospect of an early election and then backed out of it, an image that had been painstakingly built up over decades was severely damaged. Labour MPs allowed him to limp on to general election defeat. Tory MPs have a history of being more ruthless with unpopular leaders.

May’s fate seems to be sealed. It is not a matter of if, but when she will be removed by Tory MPs. There is an argument amongst her defenders that she should be allowed to see the Brexit negotiations through. The problem is that she does not have the authority and credibility to negotiate with the EU 27 successfully.

The stories of splits and divisions in her party will run and run until she is gone. The Conservatives are already hopelessly divided over Brexit, so how could a prime minister so weak get a Brexit deal through parliament?  

Before May’s speech, there was  one word that summed up Conservative party conference: flat. It was as flat as a pancake. Transport secretary Chris Grayling tried to put a positive gloss on the conference by calling it “business-like”.

This is one of the Conservative’s underlying problems: like many governments before them they have run out of ideas. Momentum in politics is difficult to bottle, but it is clear when a party has it and another does not. The political wind is in Labour’s sails while the Tories are simply out of breath.

Only one man has a hope of turning the Tories’ fortunes around. Much as many Tories will not like it, that man is Boris Johnson. The strongest alternative, Ruth Davidson, has ruled herself out until at least the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, and getting into the Westminster parliament is probably impractical for her before the next general election in any case.

The other potential candidates are mostly bland and uninspiring. David Davis may be capable of managing the further decline of the Tories but he does not seem the type to bring about a Tory renaissance.

In contrast, whatever you say about him, Boris is not bland. He is someone who could get the electorate’s attention and woo them back to the Tories. After all, he has a track record of electoral success, having won the London mayoralty twice for the Tories. The first time his candidacy was perceived as a joke, but he got the last laugh.

Indeed, he ended up with the third biggest direct personal mandate in Europe, after the presidents of France and Portugal. He may not have made a great job of it, but that does not seem to have tarnished his brand. And then there was the Brexit referendum where it seems unlikely that the deceitful Leave campaign would have won without his leadership. 

Of course, the PM’s spot is already occupied and May will not be going easily. It will not be as simple as Boris just slipping into his spandex and flying to the rescue of the Conservative Party. And he knows that he who wields the knife never inherits the crowd. So he is walking a tightrope, on the one hand playing to his Brexit base and on the other avoiding committing an obvious sacking offence.

A case in point is when, in her Florence speech May, said that there should be a transitional deal with the EU of “around two years”. Boris then came out a few days later to say that the Brexit transition must last “not a second more” than two years. He avoided committing a sackable offence but slipped a cigarette paper between May’s and his position.

Much as Boris may be the person who can save the Conservative Party this does not mean he will do so. He has shown himself to be an erratic unreliable offensive liar. He is also hated by sections of the Conservative Party. Indeed Michael Heseltine recently called on him to be sent to Mongolia.

Boris could divide the Tories like no other Tory leader since Major. There is also the risk that while a plurality of the electorate may be happy to see him as London mayor or even foreign secretary, they would see prime minister as a step too far. So here is the Conservative dilemma: they can take a gamble on Boris Johnson to save the Conservative Party but he could instead destroy it. The choice is theirs. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Omar Salem is a Labour Party member in Hackney South & Shoreditch.

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