BORIS Johnson as our next Prime Minister? The very notion will horrify some people, while delighting others. If you want to start an argument in the pub or at the bus stop, just mention his name and watch the sparks fly.
What you won’t get is the sort of apathetic shrug that is likely to greet many of the other contenders for the Conservative Party leadership. Jeremy Hunt anyone? Sajid Javid? Andrea Leadsom?
In fact you don’t need to use his full name. Just “Boris” will do. He has the sort of brand recognition that a marketing manager would die for.
He is the ultimate Marmite politician – voters appear to either love him or hate him, but everyone has an opinion and he is impossible to ignore.
And at the moment, after yesterday’s first ballot of Conservative MPs, he is the definite frontrunner.
The Parliamentary party will whittle the field down to two in a series of secret ballots before about 130,000 Conservative Party members around the country have a final say.
It may not be all plain sailing for Johnson. Don’t underestimate the strength of the “Stop Boris” faction amongst Tory MPs. But if he makes it through to the final two his popularity with the Conservative rank and file would make him the hot favourite.
And one noticeable aspect of Johnson’s campaign launch this week was that it appeared to unite all wings of the party, from the firm Remainers to the dedicated Brexiteers.
There was also a feeling of optimism and determination – qualities that have been lacking in a dispirited party.
Some of this is driven by fear. The Conservatives are facing an existential threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party because of the failures to deliver on promises to take the UK out of the EU.
This has concentrated the minds of Tory MPs wonderfully. If a general election was called today their seats, comfortable salaries and generous expenses would disappear in puff of Brexit Party-coloured turquoise smoke.
And Johnson shrewdly played on this fear in his speech this week. He warned that further delays on Brexit would spell the end for the Conservatives.
“Delay means defeat. Delay means Corbyn. Kick the can and we kick the bucket,” he said in typically demotic style.
But he was also clear that he didn’t want to leave the EU with “no deal”, in sharp contrast to the red-in-tooth-and-claw Brexiteers, such as Esther McVey. Johnson as the middle of the road compromise candidate? Stranger things have happened
Johnson’s attraction is that he is a serial winner. Not only did he help lead Leave to a famous, against-the-odds victory in the 2016 referendum, but he also defeated Labour’s Ken Livingstone twice in the mayoral elections in left-leaning London.
And a ComRes poll released this week suggested that if Johnson is chosen as leader, the Conservatives’ poll ratings would shoot up from 23 to 37 per cent – 15 points ahead of Labour.
Let’s include a massive caveat here that polls have frequently been proved wrong in recent years, but the survey suggested if a general election was held the Conservatives under Johnson could be en route to victory with an emphatic 140-seat majority.
I suspect that Tories looking for a reliable “Farage-slayer” may well decide to put their trust in Johnson. Of course there are questions about his character and he has a habit of making controversial statements. And let us just say his personal life has been decidedly colourful.
His former boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, was excoriating in his assessment, describing Johnson as “an authentic star” but also a “gold medal egomaniac” and “manically disorganised”, adding: “I would not take Boris’s word on whether it is Monday or Tuesday.”
Are Conservative MPs and party members prepared to overlook such flaws to gain a leader prepared to take the fight to Farage and Jeremy Corbyn and deliver Brexit?
If Johnson does become Prime Minister he will face exactly the same problems that sank Theresa May’s premiership – how to stitch together a coalition that manages to get a deal, or perhaps no deal, through the House of Commons?
But recent election results suggest that if MPs continue to refuse to deliver Brexit, the people will simply get rid of them and elect different MPs who will.