After Sajid Javid and Michael Gove were eliminated last Thursday from the leadership contest, Johnson and Hunt will go head-to-head in the upcoming Members’ vote. But by no means has this leadership battle thus far been a close one.
Boris stormed ahead from day one, consistently winning nearly three times the number of votes as Hunt. In the first ballot, he secured 114 votes, while Hunt won 43; in the second ballot, Boris won 126 votes and Hunt 46. The next three ballots followed a similar story. But does this really reflect the sentiment of MPs, or was there some tinkering going on behind the scenes? The answer to this question is not clear-cut.
Boris Johnson is well-liked. In fact, according to a recent YouGov poll, Boris Johnson is the most popular Conservative politician. Both MPs and the public tend to gravitate towards politicians who have big, radical personalities and big, radical ideas (regardless of whether they possess the skill or integrity to implement them). So, granted, we would expect Boris to win big in Parliament; but perhaps not to dominate the playing field quite so dramatically and sweepingly as he has done in this leadership battle.
A look at the inner workings of Boris’ team in Parliament is revealing. Johnson was handed an envelope containing a slip of paper with a single number on it before each of the votes, with instructions to open it once the results were in. In round one, he found the number 114 on the slip of paper. In round two, 126. In round three, 143. Each time, the figures were spot on. Team Boris worked behind the scenes in the run-up to each ballot, implementing a sophisticated system of vote-counting. They compiled a unique database containing scores of information about the 313 Tory MPs, which may have had a bearing on how they would vote. Each MP was listed by name, constituency, year of election, contact details, and the percentage of Leave and Remain voters in their seats, as well as their intentions and worries, based off consultations.
Former Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps was the mastermind behind the system. He did his homework, having read Robert Caro’s biography of the 36th US president, Lyndon B Johnson. It detailed how Johnson gained influence by predicting Senate divisions through rigorous research, cross-checking and consultation of congressmen.
But what on earth would be the point of all this, if there wasn’t some sort of benefit conferred in terms of influencing MPs and securing votes? I find it hard to believe Boris would have invested so much time (and money …) in such a complex system if the aim was simply to predict how MPs were going to vote.
Team Johnson generated a daily list of people for Boris to meet or phone, with briefing notes included. Moreover, former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson was installed to run a large team of ‘handlers’, who spent weeks consulting MPs, constantly grilling them and checking how they planned to vote. An anonymous parliamentary source said: ‘Gavin knew exactly who was the best person to speak to any given MP’. The very fact that a ‘best person’ was needed surely suggests that these handlers were doing more than just recording what they heard. I am sure there was some coaxing and persuading going on as well.
Somewhat depressingly, modern politics is all about image and perception, and to some degree, we just have to resignedly accept this. Boris has undoubtedly revamped his public veneer in the last few months. With the help of his wife-cum-PR-manager, he has transformed himself from a charismatic buffoon to a still charismatic but serious and respectable politician who actually has the capability to run the country.
However, politicians influencing people indirectly by manipulating their image is one thing; employing an extensive team to monitor and probably shape how MPs vote is quite another. And the immense scale of Boris’ win cannot be explained merely by his popularity.
The already-fragile foundations of our treasured democracy have been shaken once more, by this simultaneously visible and invisible brand of corruption. We know what goes on in Parliament; I read about Boris’ questionable electioneering tactics in an article in the Standard. But no one is protesting. No one is asking why the candidate with the biggest campaign team and the most money is winning the leadership contest by miles. No one is saying, hey, this isn’t really fair. They should be. Because it really, really isn’t.