The final two contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the UK, are now known. Boris Johnson will go up against Jeremy Hunt in a vote to be held among the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members.
In a final round of voting among Conservative MPs, Johnson again came first by a long margin, taking 162. Hunt took 77, beating Michael Gove by just two votes.
Although the candidates have at times tried to focus on other issues, it has been Brexit that has dominated the debate. There has been a surge in support for Leavers like Johnson, while Remainers like Hunt haven’t fared as well as they might have expected.
This is an important choice for both the Conservative Party and the UK as a whole, yet it seems that many Conservative MPs and party members are putting their own desires first and foremost, giving little consideration to the longer-term impact on their country and their party. The membership is known to be far more positive about Brexit than the rest of the country and considerably more enthusiastic about leaving without a deal than regular voters.
At times it has seemed as though Conservative parliamentarians have prioritized keeping the party together over the need to consider what the country actually wants or needs. Of course, there is no clear indication of what this is, but the recent European elections suggest that a hardline stance is not popular with a significant part of the electorate.
The long game
Johnson has been the front runner for the entirety of the competition, constantly receiving significantly more support than his competitors – so much so that there have been claims of his supporters tactically voting to weed out the competition. It is not all that difficult to see why Johnson might be appealing to so many within the Conservative Party. He has name recognition and, depending on who his audience is, has been the most vocal about getting out of the EU as soon as possible. Members are increasingly eager for Brexit and the party feels deeply threatened by the electoral potential of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Johnson’s hardline position has therefore made him popular.
Johnson’s leadership ambitions have been clear for many years now and he waged a guerilla war against Theresa May and her deal, undermining her at every possible opportunity. Hunt, too, has clearly had his eye on the leadership for some time, but has played a different game, remaining loyal to the prime minister. His more moderate approach to Brexit, being prepared to extend the Article 50 period if there is the chance of making a new deal, likely contributed to his popularity with more moderate MPs.
The bitter rivalry between Johnson and Gove may have also contributed to a choice between the two, as the two of them going head-to-head for the leadership could have been messy. This possibility will now be avoided and Johnson is the firm favorite to win the Conservative leadership.
Appeasing the party
The European issue and nullifying the Brexit Party threat will only get the party so far in the polls, however. It’s all somewhat reminiscent of the 2016 referendum. David Cameron gambled on the vote as a way to resolve his party’s internal division over Europe, but the plan backfired spectacularly. The installation of Johnson as prime minister could have similar results.
While the results of the European election in May showed high levels of support for a hard Brexit through support for the Brexit Party, the high levels of support for parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens also showed that there is also a lot of opposition to this among the wider public beyond the Conservative Party grassroots. It’s hard to see Johnson’s stance appealing to such voters, but at the same time it is hard to see Hunt’s more moderate stance winning over the membership, many of whom want Brexit as soon as possible at any cost.
Candidates such as Rory Stewart would potentially have been more appealing to a greater range of potential voters, but his penchant for nuance and long explanations in an age of soundbites did him a disservice.
Preaching to the choir
However, while neither Johnson or Hunt necessarily appeal to a large section of the electorate, it is doubtful that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party can appeal to it either – especially without a clearer, more drastic policy stance on Europe. A large portion of the British electorate will therefore be left effectively unrepresented by the two main parties.
This will likely be magnified if Johnson wins. While their politics are poles apart, there are some key similarities, at least superficially, between Johnson and Corbyn. Both have controversial pasts that can easily be brought up by opponents to try and discredit them, both have been ambiguous on certain policy details and both have strong, unwavering core support groups for whom these issues don’t matter.
This last similarity is perhaps the most significant going forward, especially if Johnson were to win the leadership contest, as this would leave UK politics in an curious position, one where the leaders of the two main parties appease their core supporters, but failing to connect with the average, floating voter whose support will be crucial in the next general election, whenever that may be.
As UK politics continues to fracture, both of the two main parties are failing to offer leadership that can bring things back together and the result may be a surge in support for alternative parties, much like in the European elections. While it should be noted that, historically, people tend to vote differently in general elections than they would in other elections, these are not ordinary times.