Boris Johnson targets centre-ground Tories in bid to widen appeal | Politics | The Guardian22 Maggio 2019
Leadership contender seeks backing of Amber Rudd’s One Nation group
Boris Johnson is launching a bid to court One Nation Conservative MPs in the group of centrist liberals run by Amber Rudd, as he tries to pitch himself as a candidate who can appeal beyond rightwing Brexit supporters.
The former foreign secretary, who is favourite to be the next Conservative leader, is backed by Brexit hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg but infuriated many Tory colleagues by backing Theresa May’s deal after months of campaigning against it.
Some Conservative MPs have privately threatened to quit the party if Johnson becomes prime minister, with particular anger over his use of populist rhetoric suggesting that Muslim women wearing burqas resemble bank robbers and “choose to go around looking like letterboxes”.
However, Johnson has been making an effort to reach out to the more centrist wing of the party in recent days, endorsing a mini-manifesto released by Rudd’s group of 60 One Nation MPs, which promotes human rights and social responsibility.
His change of tack has provoked fresh speculation that Rudd could back Johnson, even though she has campaigned against a hard Brexit.
Friends of the work and pensions secretary say she privately dismisses the idea that she will end up supporting Johnson’s leadership bid when asked about it. However, one MP in the One Nation group said it was very plausible that she will be tempted by the possibility of a big job from Johnson and his potential to save her seat at a general election, since she is MP for the marginal constituency of Hastings and Rye – where her 4,796 majority from 2015 was cut to just 346 in 2017.
Rudd has not ruled out running for the leadership herself but is thought likely to end up backing one of the other candidates and bringing her supporters with her.
Another One Nation source said it was certainly possible that Rudd could end up backing a first choice candidate and then pivoting to back Johnson in the last round if he were to be in a runoff with Dominic Raab or Esther McVey, the most rightwing pro-Brexit leadership candidates.
“It’s really not a Stop Boris vehicle, if anything it is more Stop Raab,” the One Nation source said. “But it is not about the person; it is about the policies. There is no chance that all 60 MPs in the group will back the same person but there is a chance all 60 won’t back a certain person and it is far more likely that person will be Raab rather than Boris.
“We’ve got to get the next phase of the Conservative party right. This is the prime minister who will take us into an election in 2020 or 2022 and that will determine how the next 10 years plays out. We want the most well-rounded candidate. If that’s Boris, it’s Boris. If it’s not, it’s not. This vehicle is intended to ensure the party stays relevant to the centre ground.”
The success of Johnson as a leadership candidate depends on his ability to woo enough Conservative MPs to put him in the list of a final two candidates who will then be put to the membership. The pro-Brexit, rightwing Conservative membership heavily favours Johnson ahead of other candidates, according to surveys by the ConservativeHome website.
One supporter of Johnson said: “He is a one nation Tory and always has been, and I think many of his colleagues see this.”
They said Johnson was different to Raab who is “very much a rightwinger” on domestic policy. “Everyone can see Boris is on a different place on domestic policy and it is a natural fit for many of them,” they said. “The party has never been as hostile to him as people make out.”
However, while some centrist MPs believe Johnson offers the best chance of winning an election, others are part of a Stop Boris campaign arguing that he is too divisive and hardline on Brexit to be prime minister.
On Tuesday, he was branded an unacceptable candidate to be prime minister by the Conservative minister Margot James, because of his “fuck business” remark when asked about companies’ concerns over Brexit.
James, a business minister and leading member of the One Nation Conservative group, said the comment meant Johnson was not fit for “high public office” as she addressed a Creative England event in London.
Speaking later to the Guardian, she said some of her colleagues promoting Brexit at any cost to business had the “wrong attitude”.
“I don’t think people in the public eye should be using language like that to discuss the concerns of the business community,” she said. “It’s the dismissive attitude to business that’s a problem among some people for whom Brexit is everything.”
She said another pro-Brexit leadership hopeful had privately been dismissive about businesses’ concerns to her, saying: “Oh, the tech industry is always moaning.”
She said: “That these people should be anywhere near the levers of power is quite worrying.”
Johnson was reported to have made the “fuck business” remark in July last year when asked about industry’s concerns over Brexit at a diplomatic event.
He later refused to deny he had made the comments, acknowledging in the Commons that he may have “expressed scepticism about some of the views of those who profess to speak up for business”.
A source close to Johnson said his remarks on business had been aimed at “business lobby groups sending out anti-Brexit propaganda”, and argued that “you would find it hard to find anyone more devoted to business than he has been and his record particularly in London on businesses both great and small”.