The temptation of an autumn ballot will be great but the risks could be even greaterby Rafael Behr / June 21, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson is known to be a gambler when it comes to the fate of the country. He piled his political chips on the Leave campaign in 2016 and spun the wheel. His ministerial record and his private life are punctuated with wanton disregard for everyone besides himself. The man who is almost certain to be Britain’s next prime minister has a maverick reputation, but his adventurousness is the slippery, devious kind that outsources real danger to others. When it comes to his own fortune, Johnson is cautious, even cowardly.
His campaign method, practised in two London mayoral races, is the opposite of the free-wheeling improvisatory style that first won audiences for the character crafted as “Boris.” Under the tutelage of Australian pollster and strategist Lynton Crosby, Johnson has learned to stay out of the limelight except when it flatters him and to keep his mouth shut if there is no obligation to speak. He is not marching on Downing Street, he is sidling up to it. The goal is to reach the destination having made as few public commitments as possible. For Johnson a “gaffe” qualifies as any statement that might be used to hold him to account.
But once he acquires that power, he must decide almost immediately whether to gamble it all on a double or quits bet: a general election in pursuit of a majority in parliament. Conversations with MPs have left me in no doubt that this move is under consideration by Johnson and his team, although they cannot admit it in public. The Tory party collectively recoils from a national poll for obvious reasons. They were savaged by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the recent European parliamentary poll. The memory of June 2017, when Theresa May threw away what looked like an unassailable lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, is still raw. Johnson might be a much better campaigner than May but no one imagines that the Conservative machine is battle-ready and no one is in a hurry to test it before Britain has left the EU. Only a masochist party willingly goes into a general election on 20 points, which is all that one recent opinion poll gives the Tories.
And yet Westminster is humming with speculation about an autumn ballot. Why? There is always the possibility…