‘Never rely on a maybe’: The race to be PM is not over yet

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Take a look at these headlines: “Election landslide”, “Kill off Labour” and “Smash rebel Tories”.

Nope, not about Boris Johnson’s apparently unstoppable march to Downing Street, but about Theresa May, the day after she called the 2017 election.

We all know how that vote turned out.

Yes, the current contest involves a poll of predominantly pro-Brexit Tory members and not the whole country.

Yes, Mr Johnson is certainly not Mrs May.

And yes, in five weeks’ time smart alecs on Twitter may well be re-posting this article with the added comment: “This has aged well”, following a resounding Johnson win.

But, given it’s Father’s Day, I might as well share some oft-repeated advice from my old man – you never rely on a maybe.

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And right now, whatever his supporters or various parts of the print media say, Mr Johnson is still a maybe. But that’s not to say this race isn’t his to lose.

Bar a catastrophe in the coming days, the former foreign secretary will be on the final ballot that goes to Tory members.

Boris Johnson
Image: Over the coming weeks there will be plenty of chances for Mr Johnson to stray off script

We know he is popular among the eurosceptic grassroots.

It should be academic.

Though the mantra in Westminster newsrooms nowadays is that the only person who can beat Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson.

The best chance another candidate has of making it into Downing Street is if the staunch Brexiteer screws up so badly he triggers a mass departure of support or is forced to pull out.

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There is evidence that, even within his tightly controlled campaign, the bandwidth is still there for him to overstep the mark.

We saw a small indication of this at Saturday’s leadership hustings.

I was stood outside the event (as no media were allowed in) when my phone went off with a text from someone in the room.

“Boris: get ready for an election!”, it read.

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After shaking off that feeling of excitement mixed with nausea that any suggestion of a snap poll induces, I established it wasn’t at all clear whether the election in question would be in months or years.

Team Boris was also shifting through the spin gears to dampen down any suggestion of an early vote.

“You guys read too much into stuff like this… every prime minister should be ready for an election,” said one senior supporter.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Downing street in central London on May 24, 2019. - Beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to announce on Friday when she will resign, according to reports, following a Conservative Party mutiny over her remaining in power. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Boris Johnson is not Theresa May but he is still a maybe

Videos posted to Twitter later in the day show Mr Johnson was in full freewheeling stump speech mode when he made the declaration.

A bombastic call that the party should prepare for an election is almost certainly not in the pre-approved list of campaigning catchphrases.

Yes, the fact that polls show he could win an election is a big part of his appeal.

But more cautious Tories could be rattled by any suggestion of an early vote.

But more importantly, this shows that Mr Johnson still has a taste for the dramatic.

He may be caged right now, but this mischievous creature still enjoys flinging around nuggets of controversy.

Over the coming weeks there will be plenty of chances for him to stray off script.

Despite reports of candidates pulling out and even bidding for jobs in a Johnson cabinet, the noises from the various camps strongly suggest no one is really in the mood for throwing in the towel just yet.

In the hustings on Saturday, I am told Dominic Raab said there was no need for “foghorn diplomacy”, while Jeremy Hunt railed against “our own populist”.

You do not have to be a mind-reader to work out who they’re talking about.

Rival candidates have also been training their fire on Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan, accusing him of not being clear about how the UK will leave the EU by the end of October.

If the frontrunner slips up as he comes under increased scrutiny in the coming weeks, they will be ready to pounce.

Again, Boris Johnson is not Theresa May.

But he is Boris Johnson, and this is British politics in 2019 – and that’s why the race to be PM isn’t over yet.


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