Who is the Tories’ ‘Stop Boris’ candidate?

New Welfare Secretary Stephen Crabb is a rising star – but does he have the charisma to beat the Mayor of London?

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Most MPs greet the parliamentary recess with a sense of relief. But Conservatives are welcoming this Easter break like the bell at the end of a boxing match. They are exhausted, tempers must be cooled and they now have a fortnight to think about how best to stop their split over the EU referendum becoming something more permanent and debilitating.

Some in the party have long hated their own colleagues more than anyone else ,and they have taken full advantage of the excuse the referendum offers for verbal violence. As one Cabinet minister admits: ‘The extreme 10 per cent on either side of the Tory party absolutely loathe each other.’ At times it has seemed like a bar room brawl in which decade-old scores are settled.

In the past week or so David Cameron has been doing what he can to calm things down. In the Commons chamber he has struck a very different tone — respectful when questioned by Eurosceptic Tory MPs and emphasising that he wants a civilised debate. This stands in sharp contrast to his ill-considered personal jibes against Boris Johnson at the start of the campaign and his tart response to Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation letter. But this new conciliatory tone might not last long. One loyalist minister predicts: ‘When the vote gets closer it will be like a war zone.’

If Cameron’s side lose the referendum, he will have to leave No. 10 sooner rather than later — a prospect which is focusing Tory minds. But whatever the result, the Brexit debate and the Tory succession are now inextricably linked. Under the party’s rules, MPs nominate two candidates to go forward to a vote of party members — who will, most likely, have backed ‘out’ by a margin of two to one. This is why Boris Johnson is now firm favourite to succeed Cameron.

But being out in front in the early stages of the Tory steeplechase is no guarantee of success. They are a curious tribe and their leadership campaigns follow a pattern. A frontrunner emerges and then a stop-the-frontrunner campaign begins. John Major was the ‘Stop Heseltine’ candidate, William Hague the ‘Stop Ken Clarke’ candidate, and Iain Duncan Smith the ‘Stop Portillo and Clarke’ candidate. The ‘Stop Boris’ attacks have already started, with my Spectator colleague Matthew Parris leading the charge.

That the first blast came from Parris, who wrote a column for Johnson when he edited this magazine, demonstrates not only the place The Spectator occupies in our public life but also the slightly incestuous feel of our current politics. His article didn’t bother with policy disagreements; it was a straightforward character assassination. Why so personal? Because, besides the referendum, there isn’t much difference between Johnson, Cameron, George Osborne and Parris (himself a former Tory MP): they are all liberal, one-nation Tories. The main players in the party are separated not by creed but by their personal style.

As Cameron delighted in pointing out after the Conservative party conference last year, Osborne and Johnson’s speeches were advocating the same ideological direction. Both emphasised the need for the Tories to be inclusive. Both sought to concentrate on winning over the low-income voters who had given up on Labour because it had given up on them. The Chancellor and the Mayor of London agree on the strategy, on the direction and most of the policy details. This means it has to become personal.

The danger for Johnson’s critics in going after him so early is that their allegations will have lost the power to shock by the time the leadership campaign actually starts. Also, today’s Tory party is not as morally censorious as it once was. It is by no means guaranteed that its members will want to sit in judgment on Johnson’s private life.

What is not clear is who the ‘stop Boris’ candidate will be. For a long time George Osborne was Cameron’s heir presumptive. But the Chancellor’s political stock is low and it will take him time to recover from Iain Duncan Smith’s assault on his last Budget and his whole approach to deficit reduction. Osborne is quite good at rebounding after bungled Budgets, but he’ll find it more difficult this time than in 2012. The economy is unlikely to outperform expectations over the next few years and reinventing yourself a second time is far harder.

Stephen Crabb, the new Welfare Secretary, currently intrigues those looking for a new Boris-blocker. Crabb’s life story, which is in stark contrast to Cameron’s, is part of his appeal. His mother, who had left his abusive father, raised him in a Welsh council house. As Welsh Secretary, Crabb was sure-footed. He has few enemies in the party and some important admirers, notably the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. The fact that he is a devout Christian also gives him reach into surprising places; old E-tonians and evangelical Christians often benefit from personal connections inside the parliamentary party that can trump the usual internal divisions.

But Crabb remains relatively untested. As he has admitted, it’s quite a leap going from Secretary of State for Wales to Welfare Secretary. He might also find the fact that he voted against gay marriage an obstacle. Then there is the question of whether he has the charisma necessary to beat Johnson among the Tory membership, especially as he is all for remaining in the EU. Indeed, one wonders if the most effective ‘Stop Boris’ candidate might be someone from the same side as most Conservative MPs on the European question.

The next three months will pit Tory against Tory and there’s nothing Downing Street can do to stop it. Rationally, both sides should wish to make sure the damage and divisions this creates are only temporary. But Conservative passions have a habit of spiralling out of control very quickly over the EU. This bitter contest could release as much poison as the political assassination of Margaret Thatcher. And if that happens, the danger is that neither the ‘inners’ nor the ‘outers’ will make a full recovery.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments
  • Nick

    Is there no one in the Conservative party who would make a good leader?

    They are all so wet and insipid and uninspiring.

    • Frank

      Generally I agree however there are some back-benchers who are interesting, eg Richard Benyon, Hugo Swire, or Bernard Jenkin. The reality though is that it will probably be someone with a higher profile like Michael Gove.

      • commenteer

        Richard Benyon, Hugo Swire, Bernard Jenkin? I take it you are having a laugh.

        • Frank


          • JJD

            Interesting as leadership candidates? No. They may have interesting things to say on this and that, but they are never going to lead the party, so what is the point of thinking about it any further? It’s like wondering what if Leicester City won the Premier League.

            Wait a minute…

          • Frank

            Agree, never said that they were leadership candidates – I was just trying to be positive (given that most of our MPs are staggeringly third rate). I think that Michael Give would be credible.

    • jeffersonian

      Gove would make an excellent leader.

      • Nick

        I’ve got to be honest and say that I prefer him to Boris but Mr.Gove seems to be so unpopular with so many voters.

        • Ipsmick

          More than unpopular, deeply detested.

          • Peter Stroud

            Yes, because he had the nerve to take on the teachers.

        • Andrew Cole

          Similar to Portillo. HE also would have been a great Prime Minister but would not have won over the public.

          • Nick

            Michael Portillo seems like a decent guy and I quite enjoy watching his program about train journeys.

        • Seax

          The only one that seems to ever talk sense is Willetts.

          • Nick

            Willetts? I’ll have to read up about Willetts.

        • Aberrant_Apostrophe

          You mean teachers?

          • Nick


      • SchtenGraby

        I love Gove and he has exactly the right sort of background (as does David Davis), but he would not make an excellent leader. An excellent leader is one who wins.

        He is deeply unpopular with exactly the type of swing voters required to win elections and even amongst Tory voters is likely to be tinged with being seen as the sort of clever, annoying one who got bullied slightly at school…

      • JJD

        He has ruled himself out. Wouldn’t be the first one to rule himself back in, mind you…

        But no, he’s a polarising figure, when what the Tories need is a unifying figure. Of course, Thatcher also polarised opinion, and led the party with great success; I just think that, right now, the electoral priority should be shaking off the “Nasty Party” image, which Gove is not best-placed to do.

      • Pip

        David Davis is the only potential leader with any credibility or integrity.

  • James Chilton

    Boris could stop himself by making a grotesque blunder. On the other hand, Boris’ reputation as a ‘card’ who makes top quality gaffes, could even strengthen his chances of being elected as Conservative leader.

  • Frank

    Whatever happens on 23 June, the “remainers” are going to be deeply tarnished and Cameron will be walked into his study to consider his new career. To suggest that little Crabb is a credible candidate is just absurd.

    • Pip

      Most of what is written in the Speccy is absurd and dishonest.

    • M P Jones

      What we really need is to do away with the FPTP system so that we can get a parliament actually representing the people. I can understand the FPTP system from a historical perspective but in an age of political parties rather than genuine constituency representatives it makes no sense.

      • Frank

        PR systems mean that you end up with lists of candidates (eg the Euro elections), so even worse in terms of detachment from the electorate.

        • M P Jones

          That depends on how they are organised. I have studied a few. In Denmark, for example, despite coalition governments and several political parties, an old and stable democracy, they combine local lists with party lists so that based on a calculation of ‘the price’ of a Parliamentary seat (based on votes cast and counted) local candidates are elected first, then ‘unused’ votes pooled and candidates from the party lists elected until each party runs out of enough votes to pay ‘the price’ and have one further candidate elected.

          A few sparsely populated minority constituencies are protected (mainly Greenland and the Faroe Islands last time I looked at this system) and guaranteed representation despite not having enough votes to reach ‘the price’. This system seems to provide both stability and local representation.

          • Frank

            Fine, but can you honestly see the UK parties doing anything so localism-based? Plus our local parties are not in any shape to suggest anybody.

          • M P Jones

            No, most of our politicians seem quite content with taking orders from whoever finances them and abrogate their parliamentary responsibilities to unelected parasites in the neo-fascist EU construct. All in all very depressing.

  • ToastieRoastie

    “Indeed, one wonders if the most effective ‘Stop Boris’ candidate might be someone from the same side as most Conservative MPs on the European question.”

    Is this one those ‘nudge theory’ moments? In any case, a Gove candidacy would certainly be interesting.

  • Seax

    Johnson for Tory Leader.

    • SchtenGraby

      Jo Johnson?

  • oneshotmama

    Whoever it is – please can they be a man or woman of the people i.e. not public/ boarding school-educated and be familiar with the everyday pressures of running a business (and I don’t mean through inheriting a share of a multi-million pound company through a tax-efficient trust arrangement!). Empathy would be a helpful quality. Ambitious self-centred sociopaths need not apply. Do any such candidates exist amongst the current Tory cohort?!

    • Freddythreepwood

      Don’t give a toss where or how they were educated. Are they up to the job? The only question for me.

  • irina palm

    “Spoilt for choice” … oh dear oh dear.

  • Toby

    “The next three months will pit Tory against Tory and there’s nothing Downing Street can do to stop it”.
    I disagree, as Norman Tebbit put it in his article in The Telegraph today: “Mr Cameron is in charge. These matters are his responsibility. He cannot duck that responsibility by blaming everyone else.”

    • Seax

      It won’t stop the Tories fighting from each other.

      The rabid right will attack the ‘moderates’ and vice versa and all of the leadership hopefuls will attack their opponents and vice versa.

      The ancient grandees will come out of retirement (and coffins) to attack those the don’t support.

      The rightwing press will attack those that are not in-line with their objectives. And those that are.

      Perfect storm.

  • Ipsmick

    So, internal squabbling in the tory party will result in that party’s self-destruction. And if Boris Johnson – Britain’s Donald Trump – is the answer, I don’t want to be told the question.

    • JJD

      Boris is absolutely nothing like Trump, they inhabit different political universes.

      OK, Boris is also a bit of a narcissist, but not even close to the extent of Trump, a man who prefaces his name with the definite article.

      Apart from that, they have the same hair stylist. Maybe.

    • Freddythreepwood

      ‘Boris Johnson – Britain’s Donald Trump’

      Well. Pop goes your credibility.

      • What What

        Wish he was.

  • Joey Edgecombe

    Boris will do just fine.

    • Seax

      Perfect PM for the plutocracy.

  • Outraged Tunbridge Wells

    I completely loathe Cameron and his cronies but never Boris, dishonest opportunist with an approach to principles like Groucho Marx.
    Priti Patel, Owen Paterson, Michael Gove all need to be in positions of influence.

    • JJD

      I’m a Boris-sceptic too, but with the right people around him he might be good. Who thinks Tony Blair wasn’t a narcissist? But he was a very successful leader. Self-interest and party interest aligned. Likewise with Boris, if self-interest can align with more important interests, he could do just fine. He’s gaffe-prone, and he’s not the most pragmatically-minded politician in the world, he’s thin on detail, etc etc; but he gets away with gaffes in a way no-one else can, he’s popular across the board, and he’s got a good brain (even if not when it comes to the small-print). As long as someone else looks after said small-print, it *could* work.

      • diqi

        I do not like Boris at all but if he can deliver results that are of benefit to the UK then go for it. Cameron is as bad in his own way but, along with Osbourne, has been incapable of delivering significant wins for the majority of the UK.

        • SP

          Boris has never delivered results for anyone other than Boris. He is the biggest self-serving charlatan in the Tory party which is no small achievement in itself.

  • fred

    Come on JRM. Man up.

  • JJD

    Stephen Crabb… too lightweight, would be the Tory Ed Miliband.

    There’s no stand-out candidate I can think of. Actually, in terms of electoral appeal, Ruth Davidson might be the best option. But she’s ruled herself out.

    I dunno. Theresa May as a competent stop-gap? It’s not like there are lots of options. Maybe Boris would be fine, with the right people around him. I just wonder how long the bumbling-idiot schtick would retain its charm.

    • Freddythreepwood

      Ruth Davidson. Eh? Theresa May. Shot her bolt when Dave winked at her and she went all europhile.

  • Cooladine

    Conservative party leaders are voted in by Association Members from a short list of two put forward by the parliamentary party. At present Boris is so popular amongst the members that the only way he could be stopped would be for MPs not to select him as one of the two short listed. Should that happen, there will be a mutiny and the party as an institution will cease to exist. Of course that may be what Cameron wants.

  • DaviddeAngelis
  • john

    Tories like upper class twits. Boris fits the bill perfectly.

    • Freddythreepwood

      So tell us, where in the class spectrum would you place Jeremy Corbyn?

      • john

        Corbyn doesn’t fit – hence the opprobrium poured on his head by Tories and their deferential fellow travelers.

        • Freddythreepwood

          So you wouldn’t describe him as a lower class twit – as in ‘Labourites like lower class twits. Corbyn fits the bill perfectly’?

          • john

            Predictably you completely miss the point. Boris is sent from Tory central casting to become PM. Corbyn – like him or loathe him – is a complete outsider.

          • Freddythreepwood

            I’m not missing any point. You decided it was appropriate to introduce the class war, I was merely probing to ascertain where you were coming from. Wouldn’t you be more at home over at the Socialist Worker?

          • john

            Shameful as it is to admit, Britain is still a class dominated society. Boris, Dave, Osborn etc are all evidence that social connections are the most important assets in British public life. Corbyn is an exception and has achieved his position by his own efforts.

          • Freddythreepwood

            ‘ Corbyn is an exception and has achieved his position by his own efforts.’

            Ha, ha. A comedian to boot!

          • Leftyliesrefuted

            Friend, you sound very hostile to Our Jeremy, who is easily Labour’s finest Leader since Ed Miliband, who only lost the last election because of the vicious Exit Poll perpetrated by the arch-Neoliberal John Curtice, and also because Our Ed was too Right-wing for the British people, who then voted for the Tories and UKIP in protest.

            Fortunately, though, there is now a Blog which is dedicated to total, complete and unconditional support of Our Jeremy. Modesty forbids me from revealing to you who writes it, but a quick glance will show you that there is no other blog like it in the entire world, or indeed elsewhere:


          • rtj1211

            Hard to call him lower class when he was brought up being sent to private school, wouldn’t you say?!

      • Michael H Kenyon

        Thick-posh: middle-middle but couldn’t do anything outside his supporting bourgeois superstructure. To be fair, most politicians of his class and above are similar, whatever the party.

  • Freddythreepwood

    Parris’s attack was just plain nasty and probably did him more harm than it did Boris. This sort of thing reminds me of all those ‘stop Chuchill’ campaigns between the wars, even up to the eleventh hour. Who knows if they were justified or not – But as the saying goes – cometh the hour, cometh the man.

    • Parris strikes me as pretty nasty generally. His columns are usually an invective against someone or other. Remember the diatribe about Clacton?

    • Peter Hirsch

      Parris is the epitome of the nose-in-the-air high Tory patrician bien-pensant “liberals” that has made the Conservative Party anathema to all those grass-root real conservatives who have trotted off to UKIP. He has done his Party not good and appears to want to abolish his country in the European Project.

    • Major Plonquer

      I think you mean “cometh the hour, cometh the person”. No sexism here.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Silly proposition. The Spectator’s columnists seem to increasingly ask a rhetorical question which invites a simple “no” a lot of the time. Didn’t they learn to write a more engaging title?

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    I don’t see why Crabb’s vote on gay marriage should bar him from the leadership. However, party members won’t vote for a Remainer.

  • Lady Magdalene

    Crabb is inexperienced and almost unknown outside politics obsessives. He wouldn’t stand a chance up against Boris.

    May and Javid have ruled themselves out by claiming to be EUsceptics and then meekly falling into line to support Remain. Osborne hasn’t a hope after the latest budgetary shambles.

    Michael Gove would stand a good chance and there are a few ex-Ministers on the back-benches: David Davis could be a caretaker leader for one General Election.

    But the main priority is to get rid of the Liberal-CON in No.10 and his sidekick in No.11.

  • thomas_paine2

    Anybody know how to load DT/ST articles onto Disqus? No success so far.

  • livnletliv

    Boris is the ‘stop Osborne’. Crabb is a eurobrat.

  • douglas redmayne

    Crabby has some backward views on abortion that will go down badly with the electorate unless he modifies or renounces them. These views do not sit well with someone presiding over cuts in benefits to the poor and bears the hallmarks of a spiteful sado morality which would induce the electorate, when the time comes, to punch the Tories in the face as in 1997.

  • thomas_paine2

    Let’s see if Britain stay’s in or LEAVE first. If we stay in, Boris’ star will soon go into descent – he’s made it clear which side of the debate he’s on to the extent that there’s no changing horses mid-river now ; I still need convincing that on ‘the day’, the British voters have the courage to vote to LEAVE the EU.

  • Mary Ann

    I just don’t think that Boris is a suitable person to run the country, he lacks gravitas.

    • terence patrick hewett

      Was Palmerston? Palmerston at the age of 79 stood accused of seducing Margaret O’Kane, an actress and the wife of an Irish journalist Thaddeus O’Kane who claimed that his wife and the P.M. had made love on several occasions at Pam’s Piccadilly mansion, Cambridge House. Disraeli guessed, accurately, that the “absurd escapade” would boost Palmerston’s popularity and remarked that he thought Pam had done it on purpose.

      The joke went round the clubs, “She may be Kane but is Palmerston Abel?”

      Your current day politicos are mickey-mouse compared to them.