Boris Johnson exit from Tory leadership race avoids likely humiliation

Yesterday’s man – Owl

For all Boris Johnson’s habitually coy language about his leadership ambitions, one thing is abundantly clear: he only withdraws from a political race if he thinks he cannot win it. And so it was on Sunday night.

Peter Walker 

The former prime minister’s statement confirming his decision to not stand was a classic of this Johnson genre: equal parts bullish insistence about his own ability to triumph, and a pretend modesty that he is choosing another path for the sake of unity.

In reality many observers – and many Conservative MPs – remain deeply dubious about Johnson’s claim that he had secured the support of 102 parliamentary colleagues, given that fewer than half this number had said so publicly.

There will be similar scepticism about Johnson’s insistence that, once on the ballot, he would most likely triumph in a vote of party members, and then stand a good chance of winning the next general election.

The first of those was not impossible, especially as Rishi Sunak, by now an apparent near-certainty to become the next prime minister, remains far from hugely popular with Tory members, some of whom blame him for precipitating Johnson’s downfall in July by resigning as chancellor.

But probably the very best outcome Johnson could have hoped for would be to emerge as the leader of a party where about two-third of its MPs think he is unfit for office, some even threatening to defect or resign if he took over again.

Far more humiliating would be to not make the 100-nomination threshold. Those who know Johnson portray him as a politician who, even by the standards of the trade, lives on adulation and approval. If he cannot feel wanted he would rather not be involved.

So it was in 2016, fresh from being hailed by Brexiters as the defining reason for the Vote Leave victory, with Johnson billed as one of the frontrunners to succeed David Cameron.

That time events were even more dramatic, but followed a similar narrative. Just before Johnson was due to formally declare, Michael Gove, his ally and Vote Leave partner, announced he believed Johnson was unsuited to the job and that he would stand instead. Johnson, his hopes badly damaged, gave up.

On Sunday, Johnson followed his prediction that he could win the race if he chose to by adding: “But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do.”

Much like the supposed 102 backers, many Tory MPs or others who have closely observed Johnson will greet that sentence with something of a hollow laugh.

Johnson would like the world to believe he is withdrawing for the sake of party unity, or the national good. But if he genuinely cherished those things he would not have launched a new bid to become PM little more than three months after he was forced out by more than 50 ministerial resignations, and with the threat of an official inquiry into whether he misled parliament hanging above his head.

Perhaps the one part of Johnson’s statement that is sincere, if not necessarily accurate, is when he states: “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

Johnson very much does believe he was unfairly forced out and should be granted another go. He also perhaps believes that in political times as fevered as this he could yet make a comeback.

But while definitive predictions are perilous, this does seem self-comforting, even delusional. Johnson returned from yet another holiday during the parliamentary session to be greeted by some former acolytes sycophantically greeting him on social media as “boss”.

But there were not many. Among Sunak’s 140-plus confirmed backers were the likes of Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Steve Baker, from the previously Johnsonite right of the party.

Even if he does not fully realise it yet, Johnson is now the Conservative party’s yesterday man. To borrow Cameron’s damning putdown of Tony Blair: he was the future once.