How Johnson’s campaign to become the next leader of the Conservative party and thus prime minister is going depends on who you speak to. Plenty of right of centre pundits are now making a living telling you a lot about how even though he seems to be bumbling a lot and setting himself up for a fall, he’s in fact running a brilliant campaign. The problem is, however you want to spin it, Johnson faces a huge set of challenges the moment he becomes PM. And I do mean, the moment he becomes PM; he has no time to waste whatsoever.
This week, he’s strengthened his pledge to take us out of the EU come what may on October 31st and to do away with any cabinet member who isn’t prepared to see through a no deal Brexit. Ken Clarke can say that Johnson doesn’t actually mean this all he likes – the fact is, now that he’s said it, the pressure mounts up on both sides. The Brexiteers expect him to see it through, but they always were going to – the real problem he’s got is there is a sizeable chunk of his own parliamentary party that is now prepared to take very drastic steps to prevent a no deal happening. Given the timeframe, this will come to a head very, very quickly for Johnson. He is going to have to make decisions straight away that will affect the nation and him personally for the next decade at the very least.
A government of national unity is now looking like not only a real possibility, but the most likely thing to happen given where everything is settling. Think about it: both major parties are pushing ahead with a suicidal deselection regime; both are doing horrifically badly in the polls at the same time. They will both find themselves with leaders that much of the parliamentary parties do not like and furthermore, have plans for Brexit that are a million miles from their own MP’s wishes.
I can imagine the stages already: seeing that he is about to get done over, Corbyn resists the urge to call a vote of no confidence in the government. He’d rather let Johnson do whatever he’s going to do with the Halloween deadline and then react. This causes a large enough chunk of the PLP to break off and replace Labour as the official opposition. Once that’s happened, they call a vote of no confidence with the view to forming a government of national unity. With a huge number of Labour MPs effectively politically homeless, and about 65 MPs in smaller parties who want to stop Brexit, this becomes the default.
Of course, the big problem with this (beyond MPs basically being willing to destroy their parties) is the divide between those who want to stop no deal but think we need to push ahead with a soft Brexit, and those who want to stop Brexit from happening altogether. How these two groups come together is a mystery. But if no deal seems very real, they just might be able to pull it off.
Think all this sounds fanciful? As I say, it begins to look more and more likely every day. Johnson needs to be alive to it’s very real possibility and what it could mean for his premiership.
For if this scenario unfolds it is hard to see Johnson having anything but a retched legacy. For a start, he will have been prime minister for five minutes. Secondly, if politics really does fracture between Leave and Remain, with a Remain government cobbled together while the Leavers cry establishment coup from the opposition side of the House, Johnson won’t last long as the chosen one. Farage will find his way into the Commons and is the much more natural leader of the movement. Johnson will be sidelined quickly.
Which is why I come back again to the very real possibility that Johnson does an about face and comes out for Remain: because it is the only route that doesn’t lead to oblivion for him. Now, just because that is the case does not mean he will go down this path. The only way Theresa May could have saved herself was through a second EU referendum; she chose oblivion instead. But Johnson is a very different beast, and he might see that the only way he gets to be prime minister for ten glorious years is to vanquish the Brexit beast he himself helped to create.