How far is the Conservative party willing to go in pursuit of power?
That’s the decision thoughtful Tories face over the coming weeks – and it’s one that is as much a matter for moral as for political judgment. The worse things look for the party – and they are likely to look dramatically worse after this month’s local and European parliament elections – the greater the clamour from the grassroots for Boris Johnson to succeed Theresa May. For Tory MPs gravely uneasy about that prospect, it’s fast approaching crunch time, with the 1922 Committee meeting tonight to discuss changing the rules to allow another leadership contest in June.
Johnson’s sister Rachel may have just announced that she is standing in the European elections for the new Change UK party, but she remains affectionately loyal to him personally. Outside the Johnson clan, however, the gloves are well and truly off. Steve Norris, the former Tory mayoral candidate who tweeted on Monday that Boris Johnson was “the only MP who if elected PM would cause me to leave the Tory party”, is not alone. There is a small but determined band of Tory MPs, peers and other grandees who would not stay under Johnson’s leadership, and that’s a phenomenon new to Conservative leadership contests. Plenty of MPs have been privately depressed, even horrified, by choices their party has made in contests past, but they’ve generally tended to channel their frustration into campaigning for someone better rather than publicly threatening to walk. But years of watching various Republicans wrestle with their consciences for failing to stop Donald Trump, while some Labour MPs wring their hands helplessly over Jeremy Corbyn, seem to have changed the mood.
The anti-Johnson brigade are invariably remainers or soft Brexiters but it’s not his widely shared views on Brexit that cause anxiety, so much as suspicions about how exactly he came to them and alarm at the language in which he expresses them. (Or to put it another way, nobody gets this upset about Michael Gove.) His critics see in him a worrying recklessness, a willingness to say and do what others would not in pursuit of attention or advantage. Norris describes him as a “chancer who doesn’t read his papers, cynical & self-indulgent”. Dominic Grieve cited Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column describing women in burqas as looking like letterboxes as evidence he was not a “fit and proper person” to lead, portraying him as part of a broader movement towards venting offensive but populist views that could ultimately threaten “the foundations of our democracy”.
While Johnson’s supporters see him as a proven winner, the only man capable of beating both Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, his critics are more afraid of how he might try to win. They’ve seen how he fought not only the Brexit referendum but the years of guerrilla warfare within cabinet that followed; they’re wary of his flirtations with Trump guru Steve Bannon, his willingness to experiment with inflammatory populist rhetoric and to blow with what they see as a dangerous prevailing wind.
Populists of both left and right feed off a sense that everything is broken, the old order collapsed and in need of overthrowing – the opposite, in many respects, of traditional conservatism. But a Conservative party close to imploding under the strain of Brexit is not perhaps the conservative force it once was, and Johnson clearly recognises that. Unlike Trump he is no political outsider, having spent most of his career squarely in the mainstream, but he seems to have concluded that you don’t defeat populist insurgents by coming across as an establishment Tory – even if that’s what he naturally is. He has recast himself as the only man who understands how to win in an era where the rules have changed: a European election in which even Tory councillors are threatening to vote en masse for Farage’s Brexit party provides him with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate just how much they have changed.
For Johnson supporters at least, the end of May is the perfect time for the end of May. Those within his party who fear the prospect do not have long to stop it.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist