UK Politics: Boris Johnson - a bad man and a bad bet for next Tory leader

Conservative MP Boris Johnson
Will Boris Johnson be next Conservative leader?
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After a period out of the news, Boris Johnson dominated political debate in the UK again this week and is the favourite to the next Conservative leader. Max Liu argues that bettors should look elsewhere.

"After a few months when the odds on him succeeding Theresa May drifted, and other candidates overtook him in the betting, Johnson is now [5.9] favourite to succeed Theresa May."

I hate having to write about Boris Johnson and I apologise in advance to anybody who, like me, wishes the former-Foreign Secretary could simply be starved of publicity and consigned to the dustbin of history. There are few more heart-sinking sights than his name high on the list of Twitter trending topics. It usually means he's said something stupid and that, unfortunately, people are listening.

But for reasons that are baffling, Johnson remains an influential figure in the Conservative Party and by extension in British politics generally, which means he cannot be ignored and must be discussed. That this remains the case in spite of his lying to voters about Brexit and endangering a British citizen in an Iranian prison - to name but two of his recent crimes - says a lot about the desperate state of his party.

Boris Johnson is favourite to be Tory leader (again)

After a few months when the odds on him succeeding Theresa May drifted, and the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid overtook him in the betting, Johnson is now [5.9] to succeed Theresa May. Money has come in for him ever since he decided to quit the cabinet in protest at May's Brexit plans, following the infamous Chequers summit. But is Johnson a good bet?

First of all, let's agree that Johnson's decision to compare the appearance of women who wear the burqa to letterboxes and bank robbers was no gaffe. Nothing that Johnson does - from getting stuck on a zip wire during the Olympics to offending Italians with remarks about Prosecco - is an accident.

He's a calculating chameleon who, at different points in his career, has adopted the roles of buffoonish toff, immigration-embracing mayor and shire Brexiteer. Now he wants to be "our Trump", a so-called maverick who will court Britain's far-right with no regard for anything except his own ambitions. The only consistent thing about him is his opportunism.

Johnson was initially dismissive of Trump but, recently, the former-Mayor of London has changed his tune, talking of his admiration for the US President and enlisting the help of Steve Bannon, as Johnson plots his own unorthodox premiership on this side of the Atlantic.

Is Johnson "our Trump"?

The odds reflect a lingering sense that Johnson can land the top job. Ever since he rebuilt his reputation as Mayor of London, following his first dismal performance as an MP, some commentators have believed that Johnson is destined to lead the Conservative Party.

But nothing is inevitable any more and, as has been pointed out on this site many times already, leadership contests are unpredictable affairs in which favourites often fade. Add to this Johnson's own record - in particular, his botched bid to succeed David Cameron in 2016 - and the odds look far too short.

Johnson's comments have gained him some traction in the short-term and might have boosted his standing among certain Tories. Look a little deeper, though, and it's clear that, while his calculated risks sometimes pay off, he also has a record of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, especially where positioning himself for the highest job in the land is concerned. In that respect, he's our Hillary.

Row exposes Tory divisions

Reactions to Johnson's comments fall along predictable Brexit lines and expose the divisions in the Conservative party. While one Tory peer is accusing Johnson of courting fascism, Rees-Mogg, who is himself [8.6] to be the next Tory leader, says the party's investigation into Johnson's comments amount to a "show trial".

Come the autumn, when MPs return to Parliament, Johnson's allies expect him to make a "significant intervention" in the Brexit debate. We will see what form that takes and how it goes down. In the meantime, though, it's clear that there are plenty of Tory MPs who don't want Johnson as their next leader. Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve both said this week that they will leave the party if Johnson becomes leader.

A recent poll, mentioned last week, showed Tory members backing Johnson over the other front runners to succeed May. In the end, though, it's the MPs who get the final say over who leads their party. Backing Boris Johnson? No.

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