Despite Boris Johnson’s poor record as Foreign Secretary, having voted for May’s deal, and a number of things we’ll take this opportunity to gloss over here, he is the favourite to be the next Tory leader. Why? Because he’s supposedly able to reach parts of the electorate other Tory MPs can’t get to. Forget about the fact that BoJo blew this in 2016 when he went all Brexit on us, consider this point from the perspective of Rory Stewart. He is currently reaching other parts of the electorate that none of the other candidates are. In Johnson this is good, as we’ve established, yet in Stewart it is seen as bad. This would appear on the surface of it to make no sense. It’s because this isn’t the real reason Boris is preferred to Rory.
Consciously, it is because Johnson is supposed to be able to deliver a Brexit that Stewart is not. Rory Stewart is derided as a “Remainer”, despite clearly stating that he wants to get a deal through parliament and take Britain out of the European Union, all while Johnson’s description of what he’ll do on Brexit would be laughable were it not such a serious matter. The ex-London mayor has brought back “Max Fac” for the eight-hundredth time, despite being rejected over and over again by the EU (this is that whole thing about solving the Irish border problem using “technological solutions”). He also claims he can get the EU to drop the backstop on the pretence that this will all be discussed during the “implementation period”. If I have to explain the ludicrous nature of this idea, you haven’t been paying attention for the last three years.
Yet if you try and look at the whole thing objectively, something interesting emerges. Rory Stewart’s pitch on Brexit is essentially this: we need a deal. I will do what I can to make May’s deal better, but this is unlikely. We’ll have to vote for the withdrawal agreement in the end and take it from there. Boris Johnson’s pitch is, admittedly simpler: I will get Brexit done by using magic. If you were really serious about leaving the European Union, Stewart is actually a better bet. However, this isn’t what the actual aim is, at least not deep down.
Unconsciously, most leading Brexiteers don’t really want to leave the EU. Or rather, they really, really do, but only if it’s under terms so unbelievably advantageous as to be beyond description. Rory Stewart would fight to get Brexit over the line any way that he could. He very well might succeed in such a venture. It would undoubtably be a poor Brexit (as all Brexits are) and the country would be worse off as a result. The Brexiteers cannot allow this to happen. Instead, Brexit has to be cancelled and it has to be someone’s fault, anyone who is not them. If magic Brexit cannot be, then no Brexit is deeply preferable. Again, unconsciously – I don’t think any actual Brexiteer consciously thinks this. But this is what seems to be the emotional truth behind the decisions being made by them as a group.
This is why Boris is perfect: he will pursue a unicorn Brexit and when he doesn’t get it, he can be the latest victim of the cult of British Euroscepticism. It’s why Johnson has already triumphed so convincingly over Raab, who went out last night: Raab would have actually gone as far as to push ahead with no deal, which is just not on. Brexit would be shown to be terrible, and that’s the worst thing that could ever happen. They must protect the myth at all costs.
Johnson can only escape from the gruesome fate awaiting him if he does something really radical – either revokes Article 50 or pushes hard for a very soft Brexit. Anything else will simply destroy him. He might be able to get beyond this autumn somehow if he blames the EU, calls for a general election as a way around the impasse and then by some miracle manages to win. Even if he achieves all of that, he still has the same basic problem: there is no magic unicorn Brexit waiting to be had.