LONDON — This time, it’s Boris Johnson’s race to lose.
With MPs due to vote in the first round of the Conservative leadership contest on Thursday morning, the divisive, larger-than-life former foreign secretary and figurehead of the Brexit campaign appears to be way out in front.
Sooner than many anticipated, Johnson has been able to shake off doubts that he lacks the backing of enough MPs to make it through to the runoff ballot of Tory Party members — whose enthusiasm for the Vote Leave figurehead has never been in doubt.
It is a notable turnaround.
Less than three years ago, Johnson’s previous bid to become prime minister in the wake David Cameron’s resignation crashed and burned spectacularly before MPs even began voting.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the ConservativeHome website listed 79 MPs publicly backing Johnson.
“The difference,” said one former Cabinet minister backing Johnson, “is that this time he’s taking it seriously. It’s all been planned for months.”
Whereas in 2016 Johnson alienated his electorate — Tory MPs — with what was regarded as an arrogant and born-to-rule attitude, this time he dedicated the opening weeks of the campaign solely to those same MPs.
He has made time for lengthy meetings, often in small groups, who are hearing a simple message. His pitch is that the Conservatives must deliver Brexit to survive, and that he is a vote-winner. The former Leave campaign frontman argues that he is the only would-be leader capable of beating Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn, while also stemming the flow of Tory votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
So far it is working.