It’s been a good weekend for Boris Johnson, who won’t be concerned about the storm whipped up by his pledge to retain the £39bn Brexit bill if the European Union does not offer Britain a better deal on the terms of its exit.
Yesterday’s frustration at the former foreign secretary’s comments came from various corners – the business world, as covered by our front page story, Conservative leadership rivals Rory Stewart and Sam Gyimah, European leaders, MEPs, and even former head of the Foreign Office Peter Ricketts, who tweeted: “What an excellent way to begin our life as an ‘independent’ country needing new trade agreements… by massively defaulting on our debts!”
None of the rebuttals will matter to Johnson, of course. The row is all part of his positioning as the natural Leave candidate of choice to replace Theresa May in Downing Street next month. An effort to secure the support of hardline Brexiters was ramped up last week and has already produced results, with Steve Baker and Priti Patel as the latest big names to join Team Boris, while the party’s former deputy chair James Cleverly also declared his backing. Johnson is way ahead when it comes to declared support from MPs and surveys of Tory party members, and is still in front with most surveys of Conservative voters too.
At the time of writing he has the public support of 54 MPs. In second place is Michael Gove, on 31, who attracted a lot of support before revelations about his historic cocaine use were broken by City A.M.’s political correspondent Owen Bennett over the weekend. Gove’s chance of winning the contest has plummeted according to the betting markets, from a one-in-five chance last week to one-in-20 today. Odds-on favourite Johnson has a two-in-three chance, with none of his rivals remotely close.
So will it be a shoo-in? Perhaps, but do not estimate the ability of UK party leadership contests to deliver unexpected drama. They tend to begin with an obvious winner, yet are vulnerable to being turned upside down by an energised newcomer. Meanwhile, past elections also reveal the tendency of MPs, always keen to appease the likely winner with an early declaration of support, to go back on their word. It certainly looks like Johnson – but with the current odds, you wouldn’t bet on it.