How BoGo were dragged from the ashes
Immediately after the Brexit referendum the stage seemed set. Despite their bizarrely melancholy victory speech the morning after the night before, BoGo seemed to be the leading pair in waiting. All too soon though, Gove’s Delilah tore Boris’s blonde Samson hair from his head, and the strength of their double-dynasty was diminished before it began. Theresa May seemed primed to lead a government in stark contrast to the opposition; her operation carried no threat of sabotage, and her gritty persona and robotic efficiency made sure she was revered as Thatcher back from the dead. Then she made her first mistake.
Long before calling what proved to be a suicidal general election, May decided to bring Boris Johnson into her cabinet. Just as he seemed to be burning out, May lifted the douter just a touch, and though it flickered, his political flame continued to burn. She thought that he would do less damage from within. His incendiary passion throughout the referendum campaign could do no harm, rather serve to appease Leavers still sceptical about her intentions. How she must wish that she had extinguished him when she had the chance, now that it is he whose sparks are catching at her coat-tails.
The reality is, that Johnson’s brief low-point was an unusual one for him. Loved for his buffoonery, many actions which would debilitate almost all other politicians, continue to be justified as ‘Boris being Boris’. So used to his rare political immortality – an unfavourable comparison can be drawn with Trump here – he was surely genuinely taken aback by Gove’s eleventh-hour backstabbing. Usurpation is not something such centre-stagers come to expect, and May would have been wise to rub salt in his wounds while he licked them, by banishing him to the back benches.
We come then to the aftermath of that disastrous general election. With her premiership perilously close to relegation, May was in dire need of a star signing. Enter Michael Gove. Adding to the list of positions his politics make him ludicrously ill-suited to, Mr Gove waltzed out of Downing Street as the new Environment Secretary. It turns out May didn’t learn from the last time, and rather than despair over her 326-piece jigsaw of chaos, she turned to picture pairs, snapping the PM-and-Chancellor-to-be right back together.
All this time, Boris’s faux-pas have continued to swell (and travel thanks to his position at the Foreign Office). Wherever he goes, he offends, to the extent that a neutral observer might consider it the purpose of his visits. The actual Observer recently suggested that EU officials will be “salivating at the prospect of negotiating with Brexiters who have as little grasp of economic reality as Johnson”. With such a combination of perceived incompetence and cultural ignorance, anybody else’s leadership hopes would have been dashed long ago. But after his speech at the Conservative Party Conference this week, Boris became not the captain of the Titanic, but of HMS Victory, ready to topple Europe’s Napoleon.
Nelson metaphors aside, Johnson was rewarded for his impassioned display with comparisons to another historical heavyweight. “The roaring lion” was the phrase emblazoned across the Telegraph’s front page, and various other allusions to Churchill – some subtle, most not – peppered the main body of text. After weeks of slandering May, the implication was clear. They had targeted her replacement. They had found their poster-boy. And it was Boris. But was Boris really their only option?
The short answer is almost. This is remember, a time when despite condemning gay marriage and abortion, Jacob Rees-Mogg is receiving more positive coverage than Theresa May. Less a political figure than a statue, this seemed to be a man destined for the back benches for the rest of his life, the Dennis Skinner of the right perhaps. The Jeremy Corbyn of the right seemed less likely, but that Moggmentum has even become recognisable as a phrase, shows that the Tory supply-chain has all but dried up.
Let’s immediately rule out some other options. Philip Hammond is tarnished by May’s brush. Amber Rudd’s majority is barely there, and neither is Justine Greening’s. David Davis is the world’s most boring man. Liam Fox is a relative nobody. Michael Fallon is not bad, but he seems past serious campaigning. Jeremy Hunt cannot walk down a street without meeting someone he has let down, and our entire NHS won’t speak to him. Andrea Leadsom is a crazy climate-change denier. And everybody hates Iain Duncan Smith, especially the disabled community.
Some in the party have stated the desire to skip a generation, looking to Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, or Priti Patel. Of this group, Priti Patel seems most likely. At 45, a woman, and of Ugandan Indian heritage, she ticks boxes which David Cameron sought to tick during his tenure. Unlike Cameron she was a staunch Brexiteer, and formerly a member of the Referendum party, something which would win her over with the right of the party. For all of these qualities though she does not yet seem to have developed the requisite gravitas for the leadership.
On top of this, of course, are the new members of parliament. Kemi Badenoch, the MP making her debut in Saffron Walden, predictably earned the ‘rising star’ tag when her address was chosen to precede May’s conference speech. There are also a number of new Scottish Conservative MPs, something which only a couple of years ago would have been unimaginable. But these areas of Tory optimism seem detached from the bulk pessimism which currently engulfs the party. A leader from either of these categories would be a case of next-time-around, as they simply do not have the experience, and the powers-that-be in the party aren’t likely to be in the risk-taking mood.
The final element of the discussion must concern who would be the most obvious number two. And this is where buy Boris get Gove free comes in. Gove is charismatic – a livelier number two might have eased May’s present struggles – and despite suggesting experts are mistaken in the opinions they have honed, is generally considered competent at what he does. His eternal devil-status in the eyes of teachers, is less of a con than his Brexiteer-status is a pro. His relationship with Boris seems all-but-repaired after he tweeted his support for the Foreign Sec recently. And, perhaps most importantly, he bears the presidential properness as antidote to Boris’s shortcomings, proven in his televised endorsement of May’s leadership just yesterday.
This circular train of thought must, there-or-thereabouts, be the train of thought navigated by the editors of the Telegraph over recent weeks. And, ruling out a surge by Priti Patel, it leads us back to Boris and Gove. Each of them, with all their flaws, and respective enemies, are the best of an incomprehensibly bad bunch. With the backing of the papers, even if May were to sack either of them now, it would be unlikely to harm their chances. Besides, it seems only a matter of time before Judas Iscariot directs the 1922 Committee to her Garden of Gethsemane. Forget Thatcher, it’s BoGo who are back from the dead.