What do Tory party members want?

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson Image copyright Reuters/AFP

In exactly three weeks time the new prime minister will just have moved into Downing Street, or at least, their team might be calling the removal companies in on their behalf.

Theresa May will have done her last Prime Minister's Questions and will have been to the palace to say farewell to the Queen.

And the new leader of the Tory party, and more importantly the country, will have had their first "lectern moment" in front of the black shiny door, their first major address to the nation.

But whether it will be Boris Johnson putting his books on the shelves, or Jeremy Hunt wondering about the wallpaper in the flat upstairs, is down to around 160,000 Conservative members.

And with ballot papers going out in the next few days, this enormous decision could be settled very soon indeed.

In the baking sunshine of a pub garden in Kent this afternoon, we spent time with a group of activists, some of those who'll make that huge decision on all our behalf.

'He's my man'

It won't surprise you to read that among the group, Mr Johnson was the clear favourite.

And several of the group talked about him in the way fans talk about some kind of rock god - "he electrifies the room", "there are spontaneous cheers", wherever he goes, "he connects - he's my man," said Jackie Perkins.

Another talked about queuing up for three hours to listen to him speak at party conferences, expressing disbelief that there seemed even to be a question about who gets the big prize.

And his backers dismissed doubts about his character, suggesting there was a "bash Boris" campaign, that his opponents love "jumping on bandwagons" or, in remarks that the Johnson camp would probably love, the flaws that he might have in his character are the kind that that Winston Churchill might have had in 1939.

This completely unscientific, of course, sample of Tories stacked up with the widely held view inside the party that the membership tilts clearly to backing the former foreign secretary, whatever the controversy, whatever the doubts.

That is why it is almost impossible to find anyone, even inside the Jeremy Hunt camp, that thinks he won't be the man to take residence in Number 10.

But if, and it is still an if, that is what happens, it won't be universally greeted by party members.

This afternoon, a minority of the group we gathered in the Old Coach and Horses pub were just as vehement about resisting his supposed charms.

The youngest member there, and it's worth noting the party has recently increased the number of under 23 year olds quite dramatically according to senior sources, said: "I can't stand him", and was visibly frustrated about Mr Johnson's habit of not just putting his foot in it, but again and again making provocative and what they described as "racially insensitive remarks".

Josh Matheson wondered aloud: "Do I want a prime minister who keeps stumbling into incendiary rows? No I don't."

Doubts were echoed describing Mr Johnson as an "ice cream sundae who'd give you a sugar rush", but what you need is a "cheese sandwich - it might be boring, but it gives you everything you need".


Without labouring the metaphor too much, not all Tory members have the appetite for a leader that might seem irresistible to them but ultimately proves bad for the party's health.

It is that nervousness that Mr Hunt's team are frantically trying to play on.

There is anecdotal evidence from around the country that some members are moving from Mr Johnson to Mr Hunt, having had the chance to study them a bit more closely.

At some of the hustings our teams have covered, we've heard from members who arrive planning to vote for the favourite and come out having shifted to the current foreign secretary.

Not surprisingly Mr Hunt's team are trying to play this up, with a hashtag on social media to encourage so-called switchers to come out of their shell.

And there are plenty of MPs, including Johnson backers who believe in the campaign their man has performed less well than they had hoped, and Mr Hunt has been more energetic and aggressive in his campaigning.

The arc you'd expect, however, in a campaign like this would be for the front runner to fall back, and the challenger to pick up some pace.

That is precisely why Mr Johnson has avoided too many campaign encounters, and Mr Hunt has done the opposite - for the former, they present dangerous moments to mess up, the latter a chance to close the gap.

No one even really knows what that gap actually is.

Of course there are party surveys, and both of the campaigns have private polling numbers, but to a large extent this contest is being run blind.

One senior figure in the party guesses: "It might have started at 80 - 20 and finish at 65 - 35."

Another senior MP, not a Hunt backer, believes the final tally will be much, much closer, joking that one foreign secretary will run the former foreign secretary to 48 - 52 - get it?

Some in Parliament say essentially everyone in their constituency is going to back Mr Johnson, but others the polar opposite.

One of the members we met this afternoon, Jack Wales, joked that Mr Johnson could only lose "if Tory central office lost some of the votes, but I wouldn't put it past them".

This isn't a normal election, and bear in mind how wonky polling has been in conventional ones in recent years in any case.

But, whatever the final number, even if Mr Johnson walks it, he would do well to know that some members in his party are extremely reluctant to let him win.

Not all of the noise from the seemingly adoring crowd will be cries of joy.

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