Boris Johnson is going to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. You know it, I know it, he knows it, and his remaining opponent(s) know it. At the time of writing this article, the likable and yet lightweight Rory Stewart has been eliminated. By the time you read it, the list of contenders is probably down to two. Those two are almost certainly Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, although at the risk of looking foolish, I’ll concede that it could conceivably be Jeremy Hunt going to the final showdown with Boris instead. In either event, it’s immaterial. Johnson is going to win, and this entire process is one more lamentable waste of time in a political year that’s already been full of them.
There is little doubt that Johnson is far more popular among Conservative voters than Theresa May ever was. Every reliable poll – even accounting for how far wrong ‘reliable polls’ have gone in recent times – says so. In the third round of voting conducted among his fellow MPs, Johnson picked up as many votes as his top three rivals combined. The eliminated Dominic Raab and Esther McVey have thrown their weight behind him. Even if all of the Tory MPs who have voted for a candidate other than Johnson decided to team up and split their votes between two other viable candidates, they still wouldn’t have the numbers to prevent Johnson appearing on the final ballot that goes to Tory party members. We already know what happens when the leadership election reaches that point; Johnson wins in a landslide.
All of this begs the question of what the point of persisting with the leadership election process is. From the outside, it looks like a vanity exercise for his remaining competitors. When Theresa May stood to become leader, her opponents backed down the moment it became plainly obvious that she was going to win. The membership – and the country as a whole – were spared the spectacle of a one-sided series of hustings, and an extended distraction as we waited for the inevitable to be confirmed. David Cameron was spared the indignity of having to parade on as a nominal Prime Minister, stripped of all authority, for months. Unless Gove and/or Hunt (yes, we’re ignoring Javid, just like his fellow MPs largely are) decide to bow out of the process, Theresa May will spend the summer as a paper Prime Minister, performing her duty and being mocked for it while Johnson waits for someone to polish his crown. She hasn’t been afforded much in the way of dignity or respect from her party during the past twelve months. It doesn’t appear that she’s going to get any on the way out, either.
If this were happening at any other time, it would be an irritating distraction. For it to be happening when we’re staring down the barrel of a No Deal Brexit, with the trigger cocked and loaded, is bordering on the unforgivable. The race is over. Some bookies are no longer even accepting bets on Johnson to become Prime Minister, and when the world of gambling calls’ time,’ you know the game is up. If this were a casino game, you’d find Boris’ face on every row and reel, and when they all lined up, your jackpot would be paid out in off-hand offensive remarks and tawdry quirks. If it were poker, he’d be holding pocket aces, if it were slots, he’s just hit a mobile slot bonus round with a 100x multiplier. If it were roulette, he’d have a magnetized ball. Even if you as an individual can walk away with a profit from a Mobile Slots website, the house generally always wins overall. The Tory party is now Johnson’s house, and everybody else is just living in it. Some of them may be about to find out that he isn’t the most sympathetic of landlords.
Where all of this leaves us is another matter. Johnson’s popularity with his own party doesn’t necessarily translate into popularity across Parliament as it currently stands. He’s no more likely to be able to get No Deal – which he says he’s willing to proceed with – past Parliament than anybody else is – the House simply won’t allow it. For all the noise he’s made about wanting to renegotiate the Brexit deal that’s currently on the table, the EU has remained steadfast in their insistence that they’re not going to look at it again. We keep talking about being ‘prepared to walk away’ if we’re not happy with what’s on the table. What very few have yet taken into account is that while we’ve been distracted by the small matter of finding a new Prime Minister, the EU has been going ahead with No Deal planning. By this point, they may well be happy to watch us walk away and do it.
There is another option open to Johnson, of course. He could call an instant General Election, and see if he can change Parliamentary arithmetic that way. The fact that he’d comfortably defeat Jeremy Corbyn isn’t in question – Labour’s support has hemorrhaged away as brutally as the Conservative Party’s has. Their lack of a coherent Brexit strategy has seen to that. Johnson is significantly more popular with the public than Corbyn – more so than May – and defeating Labour handily is all-but guaranteed. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party are another matter. In Leave voting areas, they could push the Tories into second place. Even where they don’t win, they could badly dent the Tory vote. If votes are split between the Tories and the Brexit Party, Labour could yet take advantage of the confusion and slip in by soaking up the Lib Dem and Green vote. That, one suspects, is why Corbyn is suddenly keen to commit to the second referendum that everybody knows he doesn’t really want.
Boris Johnson has waited for years for the opportunity to lead his party. It’s now a virtual certainty that he’s going to get it. He may just not get to be Prime Minister for anything long as like as he probably imagines. And if Labour does sweep past a squabbling pack of Brexit Party and Conservative supporters, it’s still entirely possible that Brexit may never happen at all.