In the context of market volatility, and in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, former London mayor Boris Johnson sought to adopt a different, more measured, tone when making his first post-referendum speech.
The extremely divisive referendum campaign was marked by hyperbole on both sides of the debate. This was Johnson’s opportunity to recast his image in a more statesmanlike light. In a notably subdued manner he paid tribute to David Cameron – who had announced he would leave his post by October – and sought to steady the nation’s nerves at a time of considerable legal, political and financial uncertainty.
With Number 10 now at stake, Johnson is pivoting. It’s a move familiar to US presidential candidates, who play to their party’s core support during primaries and then adopt a more conciliatory tone in the general election for the presidency.
In order to appeal to voters on the middle ground, politicians who harbour leadership ambitions need to demonstrate that they are not extreme or extremely silly. Johnson has become a celebrity on the back of his persona but now has to persuade the Conservative electoral college that he is a sensible choice for prime minister.
Johnson spoke of how “sad” he was that Cameron had decided to step down, praising him for delivering the first Conservative majority government Britain has seen for decades.
Michael Gove, a comparatively sober politician despite his own moment of hyperbole during the campaign, may also harbour leadership hopes. He too will need to pivot if he wants to realise these ambitions. His task will be to prove himself capable of healing the deep wounds in the Conservative Party.
The Conservative parliamentary party will soon produce a long list of candidates to succeed Cameron before seeking the views of the wider party. So Johnson, Gove and any other contender will first have to appeal to their parliamentary colleagues.
Other potential candidates waiting in the wings, such as Theresa May, will also need to demonstrate that they can offer a wide appeal to voters. Pleasing Conservative MPs and the most ideologically committed members of the party is only the first hurdle. Party management considerations will also be an important consideration for selecting the next Conservative leader. Cameron helped to restore the Conservative Party to power because he proved so effective – at least until recent years – at containing agitation within his own party. He managed to hold it together despite divisions over Europe. He also appealed to voters across the political spectrum like few before him.
It’s hard to tell whether Johnson’s decision to throw his lot in with Brexit was a decisive factor in swinging the referendum but he quickly became the figurehead of the campaign and the target of the Remain group’s depiction of the Leave campaign as fundamentally irresponsible. Johnson appears not have been damaged by being that target.
In the weeks and months to come, he will need demonstrate that he can continue to project a responsible image while still maintaining the persona that has helped him to make him a contender to replace the current prime minister.