Boris will need more than one-liners to unite Tories
‘Boris must now quickly show his colleagues that he is capable of change and serious leadership’
Rarely do political oneliners make a real and lasting difference to campaigns. My 2008 contribution to the David Cameron lexicon – “I’m a Man with a Plan” – now looks unlikely to stand the test of time. But in the final hours of the EU referendum battle, Boris Johnson delivered a slogan that may well have caused a significant number of voters to switch to Leave. “Let’s make Thursday our Independence Day” had it all – a touch of Hollywood that was also truly memorable, a fact spotted by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who shamelessly tried to claim it for himself in a victory speech.
For large parts of the campaign, Boris’s fortunes were considered by many to be heading in the wrong direction. But that one-liner changed the game – for him and Leave. It was another of this summer’s last-minute European winning goals.
Now, as front-runner for prime minister, Boris will need to apply his powers of persuasion to an entirely different audience. Smart slogans won’t be enough. He will have been shaken by the abuse he received from the young crowd that gathered outside his home on Friday morning. But his popularity outside of leafy North London remains strong. His ability to connect, in a country which has now proved itself to be fundamentally disconnected from the political class, is a huge asset. Support at Tory grass roots level is high, although, I suspect, some older Tories will not have liked the apparent disloyalty against his leader, whatever their views about Europe.
Boris’s problem lies with his fellow Conservative MPs, a number of whom have pledged to do all that they can to prevent him from being anointed as leader. Some of his strongest opponents are among those who argued alongside him for Brexit. Senior and respected pro-Remain figures in the party are also poised to publicly and aggressively attack, believing he set aside his true view on Europe, and the country’s stability, for personal ambition. As one senior Conservative told me: “Say what you like about George Osborne but he’s sacrificed his leadership ambitions for what he really thought about Europe. Boris has sacrificed what he really thought about Europe for the sake of his leadership ambitions.”
But Boris’s first moves have been solid and impressive. His press conference performance was wellpitched. His words of tribute to David Cameron, in particular, were expertly crafted and at least gave the impression of being sincere.
And there is still no obvious standout candidate to take Boris on. If one follows the logic of David Cameron’s departing statement, the next prime minister must surely be a Brexiter. Michael Gove, his main rival, has sensibly thrown his weight behind Boris. Theresa May might be able to craft for herself a credible route from reluctant and almost invisible Remainer to safe pair of hands.
Liam Fox, one of the few Leavers who admirably refused to get personal during the campaign, is also in the running. That he is a Scot will be another plus for him, given the inevitable problems that lie ahead for the union. Stephen Crabb and Jeremy Hunt both carry a lot of positives but fail the Brexit test.
Boris must now quickly show his colleagues that he is capable of change and serious leadership. Everything he says and does must, in the short term, be directed at turning the minds of those MPs who stand in his way. It is the only audience that matters.
A first smart move would be to reach out to George Osborne and persuade him to stay on in a senior role. Foreign Secretary makes sense.
Once the dust has settled, Osborne would be an important and valuable colleague to have at the Cabinet table. He can also help to unify a fractured party. Whether he would want the job, of course, is another matter but he, like the Prime Minister, is a true patriot and in the end will want to do what is best for his country.
The MPs not immediately minded to back Boris do not need to love their likely new leader but they do need to be sure that he is the only candidate who can keep them in a job. It is time now for him to show that he is a man with a plan … and not just for himself.