Boris Johnson is clear favourite - but should he be?
IT now looks almost inevitable that Boris Johnson will become the next Tory leader and UK prime minister.
His blunt rhetoric and buffoonish image have long been popular with party members but he is now ahead in the contest because MPs, previously much less enthusiastic about him, have come to see him as the candidate most likely to help them hang onto their seats.
It’s not necessarily that they have been converted to his view of the world, been convinced by his determination to leave the EU on October 31 deal or no deal, or decided he is a man to be trusted despite his many flip-flops and dubious assertions.
Rather, they believe he has the best chance of winning voters back from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and stopping Jeremy Corbyn from getting into Number Ten.
Mr Johnson’s clear lead in last week’s first round of voting among MPs - winning 114 votes, 71 ahead of his nearest rival Jeremy Hunt - has made him the firm favourite, but Rory Stewart - who rules out no deal and surprised pundits by making it through the first round - was found to be the second most popular choice with party members, albeit a long way behind.
And in Sunday night’s televised debate Mr Stewart commendably sought to call the contest for what it is - a machismo competition with each of the candidates insisting they could somehow get a different deal from Europe and deliver Brexit despite the EU’s repeated insistence there will be no new negotiations on the withdrawal agreement.
The field will be reduced further today with candidates needing at least 33 votes get through to the next round. The final two should be known by Thursday and then the members get to make the big choice. The odds are lengthening against Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, though one of them still seems the most likely to reach the final ballot along with Mr Johnson.
The former London Mayor declined to take part in Sunday night’s televised debate with questions from an audience from floating voters, prompting Mr Hunt to question how, if his team would not allow him out to debate with five colleagues, he would fare negotiating with 27 European countries.
Mr Johnson also snubbed a hustings for political journalists yesterday, though he is due to appear in tonight’s BBC TV debate.
But hiding from scrutiny up until now does not appear to have affected his support. Indeed, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who withdrew from the race last week and was expected to throw his weight behind an anti-Johnson candidate, has now come out in favour of Mr Johnson, describing him as pro-enterprise and a One Nation Conservative - even though Mr Hancock had previously lambasted him for his “F*** business” comment .
Not all Mr Hancock’s supporters will follow suit. Scottish Secretary David Mundell switched to the Gove camp instead.
But is Mr Johnson’s appeal really as strong as his supporters claim? Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward has said there is a “striking antipathy” towards the former Foreign Secretary in traditional Tory areas like the Home Counties. His analysis of polls suggested Mr Johnson is turn-off for many floating voters with 23 per cent of those who voted Conservative last time think he would be a “very bad” prime minister.
Perhaps the Tory membership will be left kicking themselves if Mr Johnson wins the contest and is then forced into an early general election - which he loses.