Neither Boris nor George will be the next Prime Minister

Neither Boris Johnson nor George Osborne have shown that they will continue to modernise the Conservative party.

Is right-of-Cameron too far right for the electorate's taste?
Guy Stagg
On 3 August 2011 22:48

Westminster insiders enjoy placing bets on who will become the next Prime Minister. For most there are only two contenders: Boris and George.

With Parliament empty for the summer recess, the rivalry has been gaining more coverage. Almost every move the pair make is interpreted as an early bid for the crown. And last week the sparring almost turned into a fist-fight when the Mayor of London called on the Chancellor to scrap the 50p top rate of tax.

But in all probability neither of them will ever be Prime Minister.

This is not because they lack the support. If, as early polling suggests, Boris Johnson is re-elected in 2012 he will be the most successful Tory in the country. Meanwhile, by tackling the deficit George Osborne carries the fate of the entire government - and will take all the praise should he pull it off.

The reason that neither the Chancellor nor the Mayor of London will be Prime Minister is because succeeding David Cameron is not the challenge. Winning the next election is. And that victory is far from certain.

The Conservatives did not win in 2010. Despite Labour's disastrous record, despite Gordon Brown's utter inability to show leadership, despite the backing of almost all of the press, people could not bring themselves to vote Blue. And yet many in the party seem to have  forgotten this fact.  

Buoyed by seeing David Cameron in Number 10, as well as the recent triumph in the No to AV Campaign and the looming collapse of the Eurozone, many Tories think it is time to ditch the Lib-Dem friendly, centrist policies and tack to the Right.

And both Boris Johnson and George Osborne appeal to this faction. By positioning themselves just right of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Mayor of London shore up support among Conservatives, making it more likely that they will one day lead the party. When that day comes, they will no doubt push towards the centre-ground. But by then it may be be too late.

Lord Ashcroft's analysis of why the Tories didn't win in 2010 argues that the detoxification of the Tory party was incomplete at the time of the last election. With a necessary but painful programme of cuts which followed, that detoxification has taken a step backwards.

Indeed it is only David Cameron who keeps the project of detoxification alive.

Many of the electorate still link Cameron with hugging hoodies and huskies. This is a good thing; it is why he often polls higher than his party. The link remains because from the beginning of his time as leader, David Cameron worked to broaden the appeal of the Conservatives. He realised before anyone else that the party would have to change in order to win.

But by making a play for the right-wingers, both George Osborne and Boris Johnson are distancing themselves from the task of change. And though this may charm the party, it will not win over the country.

Over the next year the two heavyweights will attract even more attention. Boris Johnson's record will come under fire as he campaigns for re-election. Equally, with George Osborne's cuts beginning to bite, the pressure for some good news on the economy can only grow. And this attention will feed the talk of rivalry between them.

But as long as Tories play Top Trumps with the Chancellor and London Mayor, they ignore the fact that the Conservatives are not on course for a majority. They are not even on course for a victory. Conservatives must show that they are still working to broaden the appeal of their party. Boris Johnson and George Osborne must prove that they can not only match, but exceed Cameron's commitment to change.  

Guy Stagg is a freelance journalist, based in London.  He tweets at @guystagg

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