MPs’ fear of a Boris takeover is keeping the PM in officeby Peter Kellner / August 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
At last, some good news for Theresa May. Boris Johnson’s popularity is growing among grassroots Conservatives. The former Foreign Secretary’s alleged Islamophobia, though troubling for the liberal-minded voter, might cheer her further still.
A prime minister would not normally welcome a boost for a possible assassin and successor; but bear with me while I argue that this time is different.
First, the evidence that Boris is winning back the support of local Tory members. It comes from the Conservative Home website, which regularly polls party members, asking them who should be the next leader. In June, Boris languished in fourth place, with just eight per cent, well behind Sajid Javid (top in that survey), Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Since resigning as Foreign Secretary, his support has jumped to 29 per cent. He is now top. (Indeed, if lots of Tory grassroots members share his dislike of Muslim women wearing the burka, his rating may since have climbed even higher).
Like all such surveys, this has a margin of error. In last Saturday’s Times, Matthew Parris suggested that it was not representative of all party members, because the kind of people who take part in Conservative Home polls will be the more active members. There is something in that; but even if there is a bias towards activists, that bias will be much the same in both surveys. Thus the LEVEL of support for Boris may be wrong (though it is hard to tell whether his true support is now a bit more or a bit less than 29 per cent), but such a big CHANGE in support among a sample of more than 1,300 tells us that something significant has happened.
This should worry the prime minister if it were clear that the Tories would do far better under Boris than under Theresa May. Such evidence would tempt Tory MPs with small majorities to seek to oust her, and so increase their chances of keeping their seats. In 1990, in the final stages of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, polling evidence that the Tories would be far more popular under a new leader helped to persuade wavering MPs to vote to eject her.
No such evidence exists this time. Around the same time that Conservative Home was detecting a groundswell of support for Boris among party members, a…