© Peter Summers

Politics

All the people Boris Johnson will disappoint if he becomes prime minister

Boris Johnson's campaign for PM has been full of promises to just about everybody for just about everything. But once he steps into Number Ten, he has to choose who he rewards and who he ignores. The man who promised movement, John Crace argues, might be just as deadlocked as May

Barring a miracle and the delightful prospect of 200 Tory MPs suddenly remembering why they had always backed Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson will become prime minister on Tuesday morning. The following day, directly after prime minister's questions, Theresa May will go to Buckingham Palace to offer her resignation to the queen and 45 minutes later Johnson will arrive in Downing Street, where he will make a short speech to waiting lobby hacks and TV crews before formally taking office.

That much we can assume. What happens next is anyone's guess. Including Johnson's, because not even he is entirely sure what he is going to do. His entire leadership campaign – indeed, arguably, his entire life's work – has been focused on getting his foot in the door at Number Ten. Knowing he was so far ahead in the polls of Tory party members and that the contest was his to lose, Johnson's sole goal was to say nothing that could be held against him. His message was that Britain could leave the EU on 31 October if only everyone believed in it enough.

Unless he can sort Brexit, he's unlikely – as Theresa May found – to be able to get round to domestic policy

What was missing was the "how", something that is still far from clear, as he appears to have told different factions of the Tory party completely different things. The hardline Eurosceptics of the European Research Group (ERG) believe that May's withdrawal agreement is dead in the water and that either the EU concedes to all our demands or the UK will leave with No Deal. Meanwhile, the more pragmatic wing of the Conservative Party believe that Johnson will effect some small, cosmetic changes to May's withdrawal agreement, which he will sprinkle with his own fairy dust and present as something new. One group of MPs is going to be very disappointed.

Johnson's first act as prime minister will be to appoint a new cabinet. Some ministers, such as Philip Hammond, David Gauke and possibly Rory Stewart, will already have resigned rather than allow Boris the pleasure of sacking them, though many others will no doubt get the unwelcome phone call some time on Wednesday evening. But balancing the appointments for the new cabinet will be far from easy – not least because there are many more people to whom Johnson has promised a top job than there are vacancies. So unless he appoints five home secretaries and five foreign secretaries on some kind of job-share basis, then there are going to be a lot of disappointed MPs. And disappointed MPs make for potentially disloyal backbenchers.

Nor would all those MPs who seem certain to be in the cabinet necessarily inspire much confidence in Johnson. Or the rest of the country. Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith are all heavily tipped for promotions, having been actively involved in his leadership campaign. That's Williamson who was sacked by May for leaking secret briefings of the National Security Council (strenuously denied by Williamson, mind you). That's Patel who was sacked as international development secretary for conducting her own unofficial diplomatic talks with Israel. That's Duncan Smith who was sacked as leader of the Tory party in 2003 because he was widely perceived to be an electoral liability.

It's hard to see how Boris could win a parliamentary majority for his No Deal

And then there's the problem of what to do about Hunt. The rumours are that providing he wins the leadership contest by a big enough majority, Johnson would like to replace Hunt. But getting rid of the foreign secretary at a time when diplomatic relations with Iran are on a knife edge after the tit-for-tat seizure of a British tanker in the Strait Of Hormuz is a high-risk strategy. Johnson will have to choose between bringing in someone new to the job or keeping someone he doesn't want. Either way it doesn't seem the best basis on which to deal with the first crisis of your time in office.

But ultimately it's Brexit that will make or break Johnson. Like all prime ministers he is bound to come into office promising to eliminate the burning injustices and governing on behalf of the left behind, but the reality is that it is Brexit or bust for Boris. Unless he can sort Brexit, he's unlikely – as May found – to be able to get round to any domestic policy, such as finding more money for social care or building more social housing. Then again, given his equivocation on these and so many other issues, such as Heathrow and HS2, Johnson may not mind putting these issues on the back burner.

Leaving the EU on 31 October is not quite the done deal many imagine. Yes, it may be the default position if the UK cannot renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, but the parliamentary maths is still stacked against Johnson. After next week's Brecon And Radnorshire by-election, which the Lib Dems are strongly tipped to win, Johnson's effective majority in the Commons (including the t DUP MPs) will be reduced to just two. Add in the fact that several more Tories are thought to be considering defecting to the Lib Dems if Johnson pursues a No Deal Brexit and that Hammond and Gauke will lead a vociferous and well-whipped rebellion on the Tory benches, it's hard – even allowing for some Labour MPs voting with the government – to see how Boris could win a parliamentary majority for his No Deal.

Far from winning a general election, Boris could be heading for yet another hung parliament

This would seem to leave a version of May's deal as the only game in town. But this too is fraught with difficulties. Despite some desperate spinning by Team Boris over the weekend that the EU might be willing to renegotiate the Irish backstop, Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, has categorically ruled that out and it is hard to see the rest of the EU breaking ranks. They haven't in the negotiations so far and they won't now, not least because now the Westminster parliament will call Johnson's No Deal bluff. So for Johnson to get the hardliners of the ERG to vote for for a deal they had already rejected three times would be remarkable. If he succeeded, it would be a triumph of personality alone. Gambling on getting Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, Duncan Smith and others to eat humble pie is high-stakes politics.

All of which points to deadlock. Or yet another extension to Article 50, something that only a general election can resolve. But here too Johnson appears hemmed in. The Conservatives would be hammered by Leave voters switching to the Brexit party if an election was called before the UK had left the EU. Nor would the Tories fare much better in Scotland or in Tory constituencies in England that voted Remain, as Johnson is as toxic there as he is popular in other areas. Far from winning a general election, Boris could be heading for yet another hung parliament in which the Tories weren't even the biggest parliamentary party. Johnson could yet break George Canning's record as the shortest serving prime prime minister of four months in 1827.

Becoming prime minister has been Johnson's life work. Every job, every controversy, every broken promise a stepping stone towards the golden prize. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

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