After 40 years of dreaming about becoming the British prime minister, this is not the start that Boris Johnson would have wanted. He takes over a bitterly divided party; he has no overall parliamentary majority; and he has just 100 days to deliver Brexit. Truly, this is a bittersweet moment for him.
The Conservative Party’s position in the Commons is not about to improve, either. Next week, the seat of Brecon and Radnorshire, held by the Tories since 2015, seems certain to be gained by the Liberal Democrats in a by-election. Furthermore, I expect resignations from within the Conservative parliamentary party if Mr Johnson proceeds with his ‘do or die’ Brexit strategy. For the fact is that many Tory Remainer politicians don’t just dislike Brexit, they actively hate Mr Johnson as well.
Exactly where these unfavourable conditions leave the new prime minister is an open question. The pressure on him to resist a WTO withdrawal is so great, I believe he may conclude the only way to survive in No 10 is to revisit the failed Withdrawal Agreement and ask Brussels to help change some of its words. In the unlikely event that such a rehash were to be passed by MPs in Westminster, Mr Johnson would buy himself some breathing space, but the bigger picture would be bleak. It would lead to more years of discord and anger.
An alternative survival route might be made available to Mr Johnson if he sought a further extension beyond 31 October. But, having given repeated assurances that the UK will leave the EU by that date come what may, it’s impossible to see how even he could pull off such a stunt and emerge with any credibility.
Not only is Mr Johnson in a bind, though, it’s also hard to overstate how much trouble the Conservative Party is in with the electorate. Fewer than half of Conservative voters believe Mr Johnson will be able to deliver on his ‘do-or-die’ promises. And, so far, the bounce for the party in the opinion polls with Mr Johnson as leader still leaves them languishing on 25 per cent.
There is no doubt that the last three years of lies and indecision have taken their toll, and that trust in politics is badly broken. But trust in the Conservatives is equally badly broken. Any further delay beyond 31 October will be seen as a second great act of betrayal, and their support will collapse altogether.
The European elections were a sobering experience for the Tories. Their support fell to only 10 per cent of the vote and I already know of several large-scale Tory donors who switched to the Brexit Party overnight. Arguably, the Conservatives’ future is already in doubt. Suddenly, it is ‘do-or-die’ not just for Brexit, but for the Conservative Party as well.
Mr Johnson should realise that he is going to have to risk his longed-for position as PM to ensure Brexit is enacted properly. There is no prospect of a meaningful Brexit thanks to the views of most sitting MPs. And any attempt to prorogue Parliament will lead to the PM being brought down by his own side. The inescapable truth, therefore, is that he must hold an Autumn general election. That is his only way out. Doing so will take enormous courage. Inevitably, it will trigger a split in the Conservative Party. But the country is crying out for leadership and a resolution to the Brexit crisis.
For this strategy to work, he will need the support of the Brexit Party. But it is far from straightforward. I genuinely struggle to understand where he stands on many of the great issues of the day. He flip-flops on HS2. He is similarly inscrutable when it comes to the third runway at Heathrow. He has no discernible policy on how to tackle immigration, let alone reduce the numbers.
Even on Brexit, he was very late to the cause. He will have a lot of convincing to do to persuade us that an early election will lead to a clean-break Brexit on 31 October.
If he is able to convince us, then together we would electorally smash the Labour Party, he would assume a big working majority, and he would go down as one of the great leaders in British history. All this is possible, but is Boris Johnson brave enough?