Tory members may swoon over Boris, but MPs are keeping their distance

Written by David Singleton on 3 March 2016 in Opinion

If the London mayor was hoping to win over scores of eurosceptic MPs by backing Brexit then he have miscalculated.

"He was the future once," a smiling David Cameron famously said of Tony Blair in their first parliamentary confrontation in 2005. These days, Tory MPs are increasingly wondering whether the jibe could just as easily be directed at George Osborne.

Shares in the chancellor dropped after last year’s tax credits backlash and his subsequent mishandling of the Google tax row. The latest evidence that Osborne is no longer Tory flavour of the month comes in the form of a YouGov poll for The Times which found that Osborne is the first choice for leader of just 22 per cent of Tory members.

Since his declaration that he will be campaigning for Britain to leave the EU, it would appear to be a wholly different story for Boris Johnson. The London mayor tops the table with a hefty 43 per cent of Tory activists wanting him to be the next leader. Theresa May is on 19 per cent, Sajid Javid is on 7 per cent and Nicky Morgan is backed by only 1 per cent of members.

With rivals trailing in his wake, it is starting to look like the Boris leadership bandwagon is now unstoppable and the top job is in the bag. Until you talk to Conservative MPs.

It is no secret that Boris frustrated a number of his pro-EU colleagues with his impromptu speech on Brexit outside his Islington house last week. But if the London mayor was hoping he would make up for this by persuading scores of eurosceptic MPs to enthusiastically back him for the leadership, the smoke signals from Westminster suggest that he could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Long-term eurosceptics such as Liam Fox and Bernard Jenkin are said to have indicated to fellow MPs that they are not fully paid-up members of the Johnson fan club just yet. A number of Conservative MPs are watching the London mayor closely before signing on the dotted line. "We look at Boris and we wonder whether he really is a true believer," says one of their number. "Because he looks more like a Johnny-come lately."

Another Tory MP thinks that the mayor’s conversion to the eurosceptic cause has only served to underline the fact that he is prone to flip-flopping and cannot be relied upon. Or as the seasoned backbencher puts it: "I’m not sure I’d go tiger hunting with him."

There are even suggestions that some of Johnson’s key allies are less than thrilled with how the mayor has played his hand. Founding members of Team Boris have avoided grumbling in public, but one MP claims that a close associate of Boris has been letting off steam about a "lack of maturity" and "the worse kind of opportunism".

The opinions of Tory MPs matter as they are the one who decide which two candidates go on to the ballot paper to replace Cameron.

Osborne is thought to have more backers than Johnson in Westminster but how long the chancellor’s support base can remain intact is not clear. One MP very firmly in the Osborne camp describes his support as "broad but shallow".

Another MP claims: "For every person Osborne has cultivated and promoted, there are three he has blocked."

Some Conservatives are beginning to look back to 2005 when more established Tory leadership contenders Ken Clarke, Liam Fox and David Davis all lost out to the fresh-faced Cameron. Could the same scenario be on the cards?

As Tory MPs chuck around names, a number of more unusual suspects are being mentioned. Welsh secretary Stephen Crabb is tipped by a few. Two female ministers from the 2010 intake - Penny Mordaunt and Priti Patel - have caught the eye in recent weeks. One backbencher wonders whether energy secretary Amber Rudd could be tempted and adds perhaps optimistically that “a long shot could be the marvellous Anna Soubry”.

The talk in the Commons Tea Room suggests that the EU debate could be crucial in determining the next Tory leader. And not in the way that Johnson might have bargained for.

"I wonder whether this will encourage a sizeable proportion of colleagues to say none of the above," muses one Tory MP.

"The parliamentary party may look for someone who is not an inner or an outer, someone who hasn’t been abusing their position or hurling insults around.

"In 2005 we skipped a generation. You do get the feeling that it’s going that way again."



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