When the UK was granted its latest extension to the Brexit deadline back in April, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, practically begged us to make good use of the time and sort ourselves out before the new exit date of 31 October. “Please do not waste this time,” he said, sounding like a parent having to bail out their child after yet another football-related accident in the neighbour’s garden. ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed.’
Britain responded roughly as you might expect; the Prime Minister resigned and, rather than getting down and dirty with the details of Brexit, we are set to spend the next six weeks pontificating about our great nation and our values and ideas and visions (and drugs, probably). The days of the UK being the sick man of Europe are long gone. These days, Britain is the rebel child. Our parents gave us some money to help with our studies and we spent it on a navel piercing and a crazy weekend in Mykonos.
The Conservative leadership contest will not be a total waste of time, of course. At the very least, it is reminding us that there is a world beyond Brexit and the painstaking intricacies of the inner workings of Parliament which have occupied our political discourse for what seems like a few decades. It allows us – and, crucially, MPs – to take a much-needed break from staring into the abyss of the parliamentary stalemate and return to the real world (or, at least, as close as it is possible to get to the real world within the Westminster bubble).
Much has been made of the long list of eager Tory hopefuls who rather fancy having a crack at being Prime Minister. And yet, just three days into the contest, almost half of the contenders are out of the race. Three dropped out before it began, and another three were eliminated in today’s first round of voting. Soon, there will be just two candidates: Boris and his Stop Boris rival.
Boris Johnson has been a leader-in-waiting for years now. He was robbed of his key to Number 10 in 2016 but managed to worm his way into the top end of Cabinet, before duly resigning out of grandiose outrage and Brexit righteousness two years later. He was always going to be Theresa May’s natural successor when her doomed premiership eventually bit the dust, and his price for his conditional and temporary support of her Withdrawal Agreement in March seemed to be her resignation.
His position as frontrunner in the race was guaranteed long before he entered it. We all know Boris. He is the uncle who we haven’t seen all that much of lately but is always a warm and friendly face at family gatherings. He’s always terrible at charades and we have to watch him on the brandy, but he is a familiar figure and an ultimately comforting presence.
We know he can win elections. He won two terms as Mayor of London, a very obviously Labour city, and the polling consistently shows how popular he is, both with the Conservative Party membership and with the electorate as a whole. He has served as a senior minister and he has all the required credentials on Brexit. He is, and always was, the obvious choice.
Now that the also-rans have largely been dispensed with, it is clearer than ever just how easily accessible Johnson’s path to Downing Street is. The preferred candidate of the Stop Boris caucus, Michael Gove, turned out to be a cocaine-addled tax-slasher, so the group’s support is now splintered three ways with Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. While significant players like Amber Rudd squandered their role as kingmakers, Johnson was busy rebranding himself as a One Nation Brexiteer, thereby bringing together supporters from every corner of the party and making himself essentially unbeatable.
The only other candidates who have survived this long are excitable youngsters Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart. Hancock’s campaign never really got off the ground and Stewart, despite generating a great deal of noise among Very Online People by launching his public profile from zero to a hundred in the space of a nanosecond, has failed to spend anywhere near enough time and effort canvassing his fellow MPs. As a result, defiant as he may be, the prospect of him progressing beyond the second round of voting looks very slim indeed.
Johnson’s victory in today’s first round of voting was as resounding as anyone could have reasonably expected. What’s more, as riveting peeks behind the curtain have revealed, his campaign operation is terrifyingly slick. He and his friends have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, and the substantial lead he currently enjoys on the other candidates is hard-earned and well-deserved.
Boris Johnson is as close to his premiership as he ever has been. So long as he can avoid accidentally burning down the Palace of Westminster or committing some other faux-pas of similarly astronomical proportions in the next six weeks, it will be him who leads the UK out of the EU later this year.