Curse of the favourite

He might have won the first round, but the curse of the political favourite and the upcoming TV debate could take the wind out of Johnson’s sails

17th June 2019

The results are in. The first round of MP votes on the Conservative Leadership Challenge is over and Boris Johnson – a man described in 2012 by former boss Max Hastings as “manically disorganised”, “ruthless” and a “gold medal egomaniac” – heads the table with 114 votes, a 36% share of the total.

Since announcing his intention to run on 16th May, Johnson has racked up more public endorsements than any other candidate. His win was even better than many pollsters had anticipated, picking up nearly half of the 72 votes from MPs who hadn’t announced publically which candidate they would be supporting.

With Leadsom, McVey and Harper eliminated for failing to accrue the required 17 MP votes apiece, and Matt Hancock bowing out the following day, the remaining middle qualifying candidates – Raab, Javid, and Stewart – probably face defeat in the second round of voting, due to be held on Tuesday. This realistically leaves Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Environment Secretary Michael Gove as Johnson’s only serious competitors.

However, BoJo-phobes take heart. Victory for Johnson isn’t quite the foregone conclusion that outlets like The Telegraph – who, lest we forget, pay Johnson a cool £22,916 a month – would have us believe with all their talk of “thrashing” and “surging ahead”.

Back in 2005, David Cameron came second to political heavyweight David Davis in the first round of the leadership race. It was widely thought that Davis’ poor performance at the Tory party conference was his undoing: a toxic combination of complacency arising from overconfidence and his uninspiring presence at the podium.

The initial favourite very rarely wins

Michael Howard was unopposed in his leadership bid in 2003, meaning that Iain Duncan Smith’s victory in 2001 is the next most recent example. Duncan Smith came second in three rounds of MP votes – twice to Michael Portillo and then to Ken Clarke – before winning the members’ vote.

Similarly, William Hague came in second to Ken Clarke twice in 1997 before romping – if ‘romping’ is a word that can ever be applied to William Hague, figuratively or otherwise – home to glory in the third round.

“The Tory party leadership has always been interesting,” says Joe Crilly of William Hill. “And while it’s true that the initial favourite very rarely wins, this market has been open since Theresa May took office and has seen a number of subsequent favourites.”

📸 Matthew Dawkins

“But although Johnson was indeed the initial favoured candidate, his position at the head of the betting was short-lived; Javid, Raab, Gove, Rees-Mogg and Hunt all spent time leading the pack. He was also not a particularly strong favourite, opening at 7/1 ahead of Phillip Hammond at 12/1 on 13th July 2016.”

“The odds of 6/1 for Hunt and 16/1 for Gove represent, in numerical terms, 14.3% and 5.9% likelihoods respectively, but in all reality they probably have a slightly higher chance of winning than those percentages represent.”

There’s also the not insignificant matter of Channel 4’s televised debate on Sunday, the format of which presented well-trodden ground for unlikely candidates to burst forth from the shadows.

As far as most viewers and critics were concerned, Stewart strode on ahead of the other candidates, calmly chastising fellow candidates for their “machismo”, and coming across as the reasonable choice.

“Everyone is saying ‘I’m tougher’. Every time I have this debate everyone is like, ‘trust me, I’m the guy, I can defeat the impossible odds’. And I’m accused of being a defeatist by trying to be realistic,” Stewart said.

Remember the 2010 General Election when Nick Clegg emerged as the great beacon of intelligent liberal hope? These were more innocent times, pre-extortionate tuition fees, with other party leaders clambering over each other to “agree with Nick” while Clegg owned the stage, one hand resting nonchalantly in a trouser pocket.

Stewart seems to be hoping for some of the same TV fairy dust. The would-be maverick knows that his unusual campaign has taken the country and the Establishment by surprise, tweeting that “it’s increasingly clear it’s me against Boris.”

Stewart’s sensitive and thoughtful moderation – his vehement challenges to No Deal on Twitter have been interspersed with selfie videos and lines from Seamus Heaney’s poetry – could just prove the antidote to Johnson’s bluster and blarney.

Rory Stewart was 100/1 as recently as April and has been very well backed into 16/1

William Hill agrees that Stewart’s ascent has shocked the bookmakers: “His meteoric rise is evidenced by the fact that he was only quoted for the first time in this market on February 1st of this year, at 66/1.”

Alex Apati of Ladbrokes paints a similar picture: “Rory Stewart was 100/1 as recently as April and has been very well backed by our customers into 16/1 third favourite.”

“In terms of our payouts, the sheer volume of interest we’ve seen in Stewart makes him by far our worst result in the book, were he to be chosen.”

With Brexit and the Brexit Party looming over the Conservatives, Stewart seems unlikely to sway Tory members who are increasingly pro No Deal, but his performance in this contest might just be the beginning, according to some experts.

“Rory Stewart’s honest approach to the reality of Brexit and the realities that the country is facing on social policy and tax and spend is really welcome,” says Ben Page, chief executive at Ipsos MORI.

“At some point in the next few years, Britain is going to need a leader unafraid of confronting voters of the realities we face as a country: his campaign has shown a willingness to be that leader.”

Is Boris Johnson a shoo-in for PM? Don’t be so sure of it. The curse of the political favourite means uncertainty lies ahead.

Main image: nottheviewsofmyemployer

17th June 2019