A leadership contest between Boris and Hunt could sow seeds of a Tory renaissance

Stewart Jackson
Head to head: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are the last Tories standing - AP

In the fifth round of voting in the Parliamentary round of the Conservative Leadership election on Thursday night, Tory MPs pulled back from the metaphorical Reichenbach Falls and the carnage of a Gove versus Boris month long battle – a vicious, no holds barred bare knuckle fight between the blood brothers of Leave for the precious prize of the Tory crown.

The most bitter wars are civil wars, splitting kith and kin, those who fight shoulder to shoulder but end up divided by betrayal, ambition and lust for power. Such a fate has been only narrowly avoided.

I suspect the bulk of Conservative MPs realised that a political cage fight in the full glare of the public would not only diminish their party further but would actually actively assist Labour and Liberal Democrats in their own constituencies and reinforce the narrative of the Tory Party as an incompetent rabble.

It would have been magical for the media but disastrous for the health and viability of a Conservative Party assailed by the fallout from the failed May regime, broken promises, intellectual exhaustion, policy vacuity, self loathing and electoral Armageddon.

ABoris Johnson elected as Party Leader and Prime Minister having emerged bruised and battered from a fratricidal and self inflicted war of attrition would have been very much not in the country’s interest.

A match fit PM needs to solve Brexit to focus on unifying the country and tackling endemic problems: Skills, social care, school funding, competitiveness, housing and infrastructure planning to name but a few.

Whoever wins the contest – most likely Mr Johnson – must move quickly to cool tempers, set a clear agenda in Whitehall and Westminster, impose discipline both on his new Cabinet and in the Parliamentary Party and make it clear to Brussels that he will utilise the mandate he is given and that they have a limited opportunity to secure a mutually beneficial outcome to the tortuous Brexit negotiations.

It will kill the notion that No Deal is impossible, that a Johnson Government will engineer another pointless extension or that it will commit to a second referendum or revocation of Article 50.

Above all, Boris Johnson will have fewer than 100 days to get his own trusted advisors into the heart of government in No 10 and key departments like the Treasury and Foreign Office and to plan not just for the eventuality of a No Deal outcome (now rated as very likely by former EU Permanent Representative Sir Ivan Rodgers) but an early General Election too, which inevitably requires a coherent overarching political strategy, money, organisation and ruthless and targeted message discipline and focus – in short a professionalism so absent in the 2017 campaign debacle. As Prime Minister, he will need as a priority to ensure that the right person replaces the soon to be despatched Philip Hammond as Chancellor, in readiness for a radical and epoch making post-Brexit Budget in November, if not before.

He will have to do all this with good humour, an optimistic disposition and an appeal for a collegiate and positive outlook. It’s what’s needed to break through the gloom and despondency of the last three years and it’s Boris’ raison d’etre and special skill. He will be helped by a likely poll bounce and a rallying of most of the Tory family.

Of course, it’s not in the bag. Jeremy Hunt is no pushover. He is articulate, a decent guy, clever and sincere and holds one of the biggest jobs in the May administration. He’ll likely fight a low wattage and genteel campaign using charm and sweet reason.

However, he has considerable disadvantages: Not nearly as well known to party members as Boris Johnson, he campaigned and voted remain in the EU referendum, floated the idea of a second referendum in 2016 and has sent mixed messages on, for instance, the impact and efficacy of a No Deal outcome and is seen by many as a “flip flopper” who defended Theresa May’s woeful deal right up to the bitter end, including her calamitous flirting with a so-called peoples’ vote.

And his opponent is the leader of the Vote Leave campaign whose rhetoric and passion electrified the referendum campaign in a contest which feels potentially like EU Referendum: The Sequel.

Hunt is a worthy opponent and next months contest may sow the seeds of a Conservative renaissance both politically and electorally.

Stewart Jackson was a Conservative MP 2005-17 and former Chief of Staff to Brexit Secretary Rt Hon David Davis MP 2017-18