Saturday 19 October 2019

Matthew Norman: 'Boris's massive lead with bookies confirms Tory leadership 'Wacky Races' have begun'

Front runner: Boris Johnson is hot favourite to become the next leader of the Conservatives. Photo: PA
Front runner: Boris Johnson is hot favourite to become the next leader of the Conservatives. Photo: PA

Matthew Norman

Trust the bookies, and this race is over before it has officially begun. Some time this summer, Boris Johnson will become British prime minister. Take a moment to fetch the antiemetics, or make use of the nearest receptacle if a strong gag reflex leaves no time for that.

And now, if we've all recovered, to the well known and marginally encouraging fact that never once has a front-runner won the Tory leadership.

Yet here on the cusp of the end of days, the past is no guide to the future. On Betfair, Boris has narrowed sharply to a hot 13-8 favourite. In a YouGov poll, he is the membership's preference with 39pc - triple the support of second-placed Dominic Raab on 13pc.

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As the geriatric xenophobe's wettest dream, Johnson would win any run-off by a landslide. His problem is reaching the final two selected by MPs, who by and large appreciate his limitations better than the members and perhaps himself.

Knowing this, his media supporters are taking pre-emptive action to style his potential exclusion from the final showdown as an unconscionable affront to the ancient democratic precepts they invented in the last few days.

"It would be monstrous if Tory MPs deny Boris his shot at Downing Street," declared a 'Mail on Sunday' leader, before expressing the hope "for a thoughtful, responsible contest in which all the contenders speak and act with wisdom and generosity".

Admittedly it's still early doors there - but so far, so good. An unnamed ministerial supporter describes Johnson's Tory critics as "a cadre of entitled pr**ks". His imminent efforts to reassure the "entitled pr**k" demographic, according to his wise and generous employers at the 'Daily Telegraph', will involve "highlighting his successes as... foreign secretary to remind MPs that he is a man who gets things done".

This appears to be written without ironic intent. But if anyone on the Conservative benches has forgotten his triumph in securing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe her berth in a Tehran cell, by falsely claiming she was training journalists in the region, Johnson will want to remind them how he got that thing done.

He isn't the only candidate with achievements worth highlighting, of course. Raab has the success, as Brexit secretary, of negotiating the deal that shocked him into a protest resignation.

Raab seems static at the minute, possibly conserving energy for the attritional campaign ahead, but others are on the march. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, whose new big thing is using less bath water, but who suffered an alarming leak of his highly confidential memo on the matter, is positioning himself as the healer. Last Tuesday, he held a dinner for 50 MPs in a location cleverly chosen to emphasise his yearning to reach out to deprived corners of the country. In Chelsea, he "pitched his unity vision". We count the moments until he leaks the details of that.

Esther McVey, the erstwhile GMTV journalist and leader of the party's Provisional Anthea Turner Wing, has launched Blue Collar Conservatism, a group dedicated to the interests of "ordinary working people". McVey will then depart for a 10-date pub tour to sell this thrillingly novel philosophy to the punters. It isn't known if she'll be invading Gove's urban deprivation turf in Chelsea. But ordinary working people can risk the sack by bunking off work to catch her first gig at the Brown Cow in Bingley, Yorkshire, later this month.

If McVey does win - and you can't rule it out; in that poll, she's somewhere behind Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who makes a strong early showing with 1pc - her Denis Thatcher will be fiancé and fellow Tory MP Philip Davies. As PM, the rise in her income to double his would confirm Davies's conviction that the gender pay gap is "a problem... stirred up by those who can be described as militant feminists and the politically correct males who pander to this nonsense".

Jeremy Hunt is quiet at the minute, but his rival for the Remainer-faking-it-as-an-ultra demographic isn't. Sajid Javid's deliciously subtle appeal to hardliners took him to Scotland Yard on Monday to give "a major speech" about tackling extremism.

Amber Rudd and Rory Stewart have relaunched the One Nation caucus of 60 Tory MPs with a request to the party to "reject the comfort blanket of populism". Or "of Boris", as my English leadership campaign dictionary translation translates. Good luck to them with that.

And "friends of Steve Baker" reveal the ERG self-dramatist is threatening a crack unless Johnson and Raab vote against Theresa May's deal when it makes its final appearance. "Steve's been contacted, [always a concern when a minor celeb takes to referring to himself in the third person] by a number of colleagues asking him to run, and so far he's been listening to them out of politeness." Bless him.

And so it begins, the month-long preamble to two months of guilty pleasure hilarity as the indescribably awful go in pursuit of the most indelibly impossible job (even for a competent leader) in the democratic world.

For decades, I've thought that the most perfect metaphor ever conjured for the absolute overwhelming futility of human existence was 'Wacky Races'. If that belief makes it through the summer, I'll take a shallow bath with Gove.

© Independent News Service

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