This morning, Health Secretary Matt Hancock withdrew from the race for Conservative Party leadership, leaving six remaining candidates vying for the Premiership. It had become clear, in the wake of first-round voting amongst Tory MPs yesterday, that the remaining contest would very much be for final ballot’s second spot, to be put to some 160,000 Conservative Party members next month. Boris Johnson, having secured 114 votes to runner-up Jeremy Hunt’s 43 in yesterday’s contest, is in prime position to snatch party leadership and a stint as PM.
Second place, meanwhile, is all to play for, with just a 16-vote difference between Dominic Rabb – 4th-placed in the overall ranking, and Jeremy Hunt, while just 6 separate the latter from Michael Gove, who’s campaign was dealt a blow in recent days by drug-use revelations.
Johnson’s runaway success at the first round will have prompted audible sighs of relief amongst the former Foreign Secretary’s inner circle and campaign coordinators. Indeed, camp BJ’s fear has long concerned the proclivity of the gaff-prone Leave Campaign Chieftain for self-sabotage. Now, with the odds of a repeat of Michael Gove’s 2017 backstab apparently muzzled, chief among obstacles to a Johnson victory next month is the candidate stabbing himself in the front.
It is wise, then, that Johnson and co. have moved to drastically curtail his public appearances for fear of an implosion. At the time of writing, Johnson was the only candidate yet to confirm his attendance at a televised leadership debate scheduled for this Sunday. Debate hosts, Channel 4, suggested that a clearly marked podium bearing the candidate’s name, absent or otherwise, would be on display for the duration. Jeremy Hunt, noting his 16 appearances on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme in the last year to Johnson’s 1, invoked Churchill – of whom BJ is a biographer, in scolding the prospective PM’s absenteeism:
“What would Churchill say if someone who wants to be prime minister of the United Kingdom is hiding away from the media, not taking part in these big occasions?”
Candidate Rory Stewart, a potential dark horse, similarly appealed to the bookies’ favourite, whom he described as “one of the greatest communicators in modern political life”, to expose himself to greater public scrutiny through the medium of debate.
Johnson’s campaign launch, one of the few media grillings the leadership hopeful has willingly subjected himself to of late, was revealing of the pitifully low bar for what constitutes great communication in modern political life. In response to a call from Beth Rigby of Sky News to defend previous comments made by Mr. Johnson depicting Muslim women as “letterboxes”, the candidate doubled down on a commitment to “speak as directly as I can”.
It is not the case, as Mr. Stewart would have it, that in Boris Johnson is manifest “one of the greatest communicators in modern political life”. More, the candidate all too often and too cheerfully known by his first name is the great communicator of the base, the pandering and the false. It is this, demagogic essence of candidate Johnson’s agenda which has been best articulated by former Deputy PM and Tory Party Grandee Lord Michael Heseltine:
“[Johnson] works it out, he decides which way the wind is blowing … a man who waits to see which way the crowd is running and then dashes in front and says, ‘follow me’”.
It would certainly be too much to attribute the prevailing nationalist malaise that has so warped British politics entirely to Mr. Johnson and similar Farage-esque figures – the root of such is to be found in decades of mismanagement and societal political dislocation which long precede the fabled Brexiteer. Rather, the crime of Mr. Johnson – one for which he was until very recently faced with a court appearance, is fanning the flames of popular discontent with spurious rhetoric. At their most innocuous, such false claims that punctuate the 2018 BBC production Inside the Foreign Office can clearly be read as a corollary of outright incompetence. More severely, Johnson’s targeted demagoguery – manifest in Islamophobic, homophobic and more-politically orientated nonsenses such as the infamous ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’ Brexit bus, proliferates in an environment in want of proper scrutiny. It is only natural that in the run-up to the final ballot, team Johnson would batten down the hatches and seek to elude the spotlight of public probing.
Boris Johnson stands on the precipice of the Premiership at a moment of unprecedented political crisis, one fostered in no small part by himself. Neither Churchillian nor harmless, Mr. Johnson is but a skillful demagogue who has successfully exercised the power of privilege to offset political incompetence. In the coming weeks, his team will do all they can to retain the scarcity of scrutiny and secure victory by way of evasion, it is the charge of critical media to do all they can to preserve some semblance of visibility.