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The court of Boris Johnson: the factions competing for approval

10 July 2019

1:06 AM

10 July 2019

1:06 AM

How will Boris Johnson govern? With even Jeremy Hunt allies privately braced for defeat in two weeks’ time when the result is announced, talk has turned to what a Johnson government could look like. This relates not just to his Cabinet but how No. 10 will be run and who Johnson will take guidance from. ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman has predicted that a Johnson government will be much more like a court than his predecessors – with groups of courtiers offering rival advice: ‘He will listen to these groups and play them off’.

So, which groups will be vying for Johnson’s approval? Over the length of the Tory leadership campaign, Johnson has seen his support base expand significantly with a number of different factions forming. Each have their own appeal to the former mayor of London – and their own aims:

The old retainers

Members: Ben Wallace, Nigel Adams, Jake Berry, Conor Burns

These are the old time parliamentary supporters of Johnson who have been with him for the long haul. Back in 2016 when Johnson ran for the Tory leadership, he failed to win the mass backing of the Parliamentary party. When Michael Gove turned on Johnson and decided to run against him, Gove took many of Johnson’s supporters with him. After that doomed bid, Johnson found himself with little in the way of MP support. However, this group have stuck with him even when it was unfashionable. It follows that certain members are more suspicious of the motives of recent Johnson supporters. Members of this group also believe their loyalty over the years ought to be rewarded if Johnson enters No. 10.

The new kids on the block

Members: Gavin Williamson, James Wharton, Simon Hart

What set Boris Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign out from his effort in 2016? Amongst other things it was his popularity with the Parliamentary party. The long held view amongst MPs was that Johnson was unpopular in the Commons and therefore the best way to stop him from becoming prime minister was to simply keep him off the final two members’ ballot. In the end, Johnson won the support of over half of the Parliamentary party. This was in large credited to his Parliamentary stage campaign chief James Wharton (a former Tory MP) and the former chief whip Gavin Williamson. The pair helped to bring in backbench support for Johnson using their knowledge of the party.

After Theresa May sacked Williamson as defence secretary for his alleged involvement in the Huawei leak, he joined Johnson’s team. Here he brought efficiency to the parliamentary stages by bringing MPs on board. The efforts were so successful – with Johnson not only coming out on top but being joined by his preferred opponent in the final two – that Williamson and co were accused of allowing tactical voting amongst Johnson supporters. Other Johnson supporters, however, have raised concern over Williamson’s tactics suggesting he can be too heavy-handed and Boris would be well-advised to keep some distance. However, with Williamson expected to win a return to Cabinet in a Johnson government, this faction look likely to keep wielding influence for some time to come.

The City Hall crew

Members: Will Walden, Sir Eddie Lister, Kit Malthouse, James Cleverly

Boris Johnson never fails to mention his record as Mayor of London when on the campaign trail or a media appearance in this Tory leadership contest. Unlike his stint at the Foreign Office, Johnson views his time in City Hall as a blueprint he can take to No. 10 and build on. It follows that many of the figures he worked and relied on then are in close contact with him now and expected to come with him to Downing Street. His former chief of staff Eddie Lister is tipped for the same role in No. 10 while Will Walden is in the running for Director of Communications.

This group are less wrapped up in the Parliamentary drama of the past two years than many of Johnson’s other supporters. However, some Johnson rivals believe they have less of a grip on governing at a national level and will be in for a shock.

The European Research Group

Members: Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois, Steve Baker

During Theresa May’s time as prime minister, the ERG of eurosceptic Tory backbenchers caused the government many a headache. Johnson managed to win the support of the bulk of them in the first stage of the leadership contest. Both Steve Baker and Mark Francois – who refused to vote for the withdrawal agreement on any of the three occasions – decided to put their faith in Johnson to deliver Brexit on time. In the membership stage of the contest, Duncan Smith was handed the role of campaign chief to keep Johnson in touch with the membership on Brexit. In other words: make sure he doesn’t go soft. This group all have differing versions of what they would view as an acceptable renegotiation with Brussels. Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen as more willing to compromise on the Withdrawal Agreement. However, as a collective they will work to make sure that Johnson does not renege on any of the Brexit promises he has made during the campaign – namely, the need to leave by the end of October ‘do or die’.

Team Vote Leave

Members: A mix of Vote Leave staffers and politicos from the 2016 campaign

The EU referendum first brought triumph for Boris Johnson when the Leave campaign won. However, as time has gone on, Johnson has found the aftermath of the vote to be bruising and in many ways frustrating – having to watch Theresa May run the show. He is still in contact with many of his Vote Leave colleagues and some work for him today. Lee Cain has been with Johnson since his time as foreign secretary and now leads the press operation (he’s been given the nickname ‘Boris’s man on earth’ thanks to his approachable style) while Vote Leave colleague Oliver Lewis focuses on policy. This faction will be on hand should Johnson come into difficulties on Brexit and he need strategic advice. They will likely act as sounding boards on what to do next.

The eco warriors

Members: Carrie Symonds, Zac Goldsmith, Ben Elliott

One of the most powerful factions in the court of Boris Johnson, the green Tories have a close relationship with Johnson. His partner Carrie Symonds – former head of press for CCHQ – now focusses on environmentalism and is expected to push that agenda should Johnson make it to No. 10. Symonds has allies in Zac Goldsmith – an old friend of Johnson’s – and his old friend Ben Elliot – nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall and currently the government’s food waste and surplus champion. Johnson sat on Elliot’s table at the recent Tory fundraiser at the Hurlingham club. All wish to see Johnson push a liberal Conservative agenda.

The men and women of government

Members: Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Lucy Frazer

There was a time when it was hard to find ministers to go on the airwaves to defend Boris Johnson. These days there are too many to fit in one studio. With Johnson looking a shoo-in for No. 10, ambitious ministers have followed. Liz Truss was the first Cabinet minister to back Johnson. Since then many others have followed including Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid. Attendees of the Johnson morning meeting report that the various ministers often try to compete with one another to impress the main man. Hanock, Javid and Truss are all competing to win the role of Chancellor. Even once positions have been appointed, the jostling to be Johnson’s preferred minister will likely continue. Some members of this group are regarded with suspicion by Johnson’s older supporters on the grounds that their support appears to be a new thing.

Team Crosby Textor

Members: Lynton Crosby, Mark Fulbrook

Officially speaking, Lynton Crosby has no role in Boris Johnson’s 2019 leadership bid. Instead, his business partner Mark Fullbrook has taken on a central role in the campaign – leading message discipline. The pair are regarded as at times blunt and at times aggressive in their style. However, the bulk of the Tory party believe they can get results – if you put the 2017 snap election disaster down to May’s aide Nick Timothy. Were Johnson to go into an election, there’s an expectation that Crosby Textor would run the campaign. However, there are rumours that Team Crosby Textor are not on great terms with Johnson’s Eco Warriors. Fullbrook ran Zac Goldsmith’s disastrous doomed London mayoral campaign.


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