Boris’s Tory leadership chances: the lesson of Patrick Gordon Walker

by Stephen Tall on March 19, 2013

boris and cameronA typically colourful quote from Mayor of London Boris Johnson on any ambition he might harbour one day to occupy Number 10:

“I would like to be the lead singer of an international rock group. That was my aim, or a good guitarist. I would love to have been a world-famous painter or a composer. There are many things that I would like to have been able to do. … Obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at. But it’s not going to happen.”

Yet he remains the bookies’ favourite, according to The Spectator’s daily tracker:

    Next Tory leader chances, as implied by bookies: Boris Johnson 19%, Theresa May 16%, Michael Gove 11%, Philip Hammond 9%, George Osborne 9%, William Hague 8%, David Davis 6%, Grant Shapps 5%.

The biggest stumbling block to Boris becoming Tory leader is the obvious one: he’s not an MP. But there is continuing speculation about a possible route — for example, from political journalist Gaby Hinsliff:

A by-election to create a vacancy for Boris — is it plausible? Well, never rule anything out. But the voters tend not to like being taken for granted. That’s a lesson that Patrick Gordon Walker learned the hard way in the 1965 Leyton by-election…

Patrick Gordon Walker was the Labour MP defeated in 1964 in the infamous Smethwick campaign (which featured the slogan, “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour”). Harold Wilson appointed Gordon Walker to the foreign office anyway. Labour’s Reginald Sorensen was moved upstairs to the Lords to create a safe seat for Gordon Walker to occupy. But Leyton’s voters had other ideas: it was gained by the Tories by 205 votes in January 1965. Patrick Gordon Walker was forced to resign from office.

However, he did return to power: the seat reverted to Labour at the 1966 general election. So if Boris is to take a tilt at the Tory leadership, the safe route would be to find a London seat ready for the 2015 general election. To risk a by-election is to chance humiliation. And Boris may be a fool, but he’s not stupid.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.