Boris Johnson is now clear favourite to win. His rival Jeremy Hunt has emerged hesitantly from an uninspiring field, in which only the outsider Rory Stewart showed flashes of originality. He lives to fight another day. The third runner, Michael Gove, clearly paid the price for his past feud with Johnson, though he was the more able of the two challengers.
The Tory party at large now faces two personalities who could hardly be less alike. Johnson’s qualities are worn on his sleeve, evident in his career so far. A shambolic, gaffe-prone comedian, he has a poor record in political office. His London mayoralty was vain and spendthrift, crowned by his massively unsuitable appointment as foreign secretary by Theresa May. The idea of Johnson representing Britain at a summit conference is unnerving. On Brexit he has been embedded with the demons of opportunism.
Yet there is no denying Johnson’s appeal. He appears likable and accessible. He prefers metaphor to political cant, and his lack of self-discipline seems agreeable, almost endearing, to those outside the political community. Underestimating such qualities has long been the downfall of Johnson’s rivals.
Hunt is a colourless, small businessman turned identikit Tory politician. His television performances have been wooden and cliched and his position on Brexit – switching between remain, leave and compromise – was clearly dictated by his desire to position himself within his party. Hunt’s skill as health minister and foreign secretary has been to read a brief and present it unflappably to the world. An ability to not get rattled is a political asset. But it is hard to believe Hunt will seriously discomfit Johnson, whose fitness for office might have been tested by Gove.
The job of political leader in a modern democracy is phenomenally hard, nowhere more so than in 2019 in Britain. A prime minister is no soloist but the conductor of an orchestra, one in constant discord as it attempts an ever changing score. The Brexit score, as bequeathed by May, remains all but unplayable.
Whoever emerges next month as leader must immediately forestall no-deal Brexit, and do so fast. This can only be by reaching a swift agreement on the “backstop” with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar. Only Varadkar can deliver Brussels by October, and that means Brexit within a transitional customs union. This must then be sold to parliament, presumably by somehow reviving the coalition that May failed to achieve. There is no plausible alternative. It will require consummate political skills.
The overriding issue is whether Hunt or Johnson has them. Hunt has no public persona to rival Johnson on the national stage. His steadiness in office has been dogged and he is unlikely to upset the apple cart if the Brexit going gets tough – as will always be the risk with Johnson. But he is more likely to win the heads than the hearts of his colleagues.
Johnson is admired and he is loathed. A customs union withdrawal deal will require of him some spectacular U-turns. He must show he can draw support from Brexiters who have turned to Nigel Farage, while at the same time disappointing the hardliners. He must do likewise to his own no-dealers. He must establish a momentum that carries all before him, because he must secure a deal, even if it means all his dark arts of dissembling, befuddling and reneging.
But Johnson does have one weapon all his rivals lacked. The polls clearly indicate he is an election winner. For Tories of all ranks he holds the elixir of electoral salvation. It makes his capacity to wield the threat – or promise – of a general election more potent. Hunt might bore the nation into a Brexit deal, but it would be touch and go. Johnson would roar, skid, veer and cheat – but he must be more likely pull it off. Dull it would not be. But what a risk.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist