LONDON — Moderate Conservative Members of Parliament are considering embracing Boris Johnson as their next prime minister in an attempt to wrestle control of his potential premiership from hardline Brexiteers.
Johnson, the former foreign secretary, is the current frontrunner in the race to replace Theresa May as party leader and prime minister, despite his divisive pro-Brexit reputation and well-documented history of gaffes.
The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip famously fronted the official campaign for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum and now derives most of his support from the pro-Leave, right-wing of the Conservative party.
However, prior to his involvement in the Leave campaign, Johnson gained a reputation as a liberal, centre-ground politician during his time as Mayor of London.
With bookmakers making Johnson the odds-on favourite to succeed May, many moderate Tory MPs believe they should bring him onside early in order have roles in his Cabinet and prevent Brexiteers from shaping his leadership.
“We should back Boris early and affect change from inside his team,” one Conservative source in the newly-formed “One Nation” group of centre-ground Conservative MPs told Business Insider this week.
“It’s much better to have a Boris surrounded by Amber [Rudd] and Tugendhat [Tom] than a Boris surrounded by his ERG mates [European Research Group of pro-Brexit MPs].”
The strategy is based on the belief that Johnson is malleable and willing to change his politics for political advantage, pointing to the contrasts between his spell as London Mayor and his conduct as a Brexit campaigner.
They believe that having moderate voices in Johnson’s Cabinet would also make a no-deal Brexit less likely.
There is also an opinion shared by many Conservative party moderates that Johnson as leader would be preferable to former Brexit Secretary and leadership hopeful Dominic Raab getting the top job.
“It’s either a socially-liberal, London Mayor Boris who is anti-Heathrow expansion and pro-environment, or Raab who makes weird comments about abortion,” one figure involved in One Nation group discussions said.
“Raab does not give a crap [about the moderates.] He has not even acknowledged us.”
Earlier this week, Johnson had one-on-one discussions with a former Cabinet minister who is part of the One Nation caucus of moderate Conservative MPs, as part of efforts to build bridges with the group of around 60 MPs.
Shortly after the inaugural meeting of the One Nation group, Johnson used social media to attempt to win them over.
“Agree with all of this. One Nation values have never been more important,” Johnson tweeted on Monday.
Some Conservatives moderates remain hostile to Johnson Getty
Party sources told Business Insider that Johnson was “desperate” for the backing of moderate Tory MPs. However, he still has a number of strong critics in the group.
Ex-minister Margot James this week said that he was “not fit for high public office,” due to his infamous “fuck business” remark in response to UK companies concerned about the impact of leaving the EU.
Another former government minister in the group told Business Insider this week that Johnson was a “very flawed man,” and described moves to make him prime minister as a “desperate move by a desperate [Tory] party.”
Some MPs in the One Nation group are so hostile to Johnson that they cannot countenance voting for him, even if backing another candidate is a lost cause in a contest which Johnson is widely expected to win.
Most MPs in this anti-Johnson faction are set to throw their support behind either Environment Secretary Michael Gove or Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Hancock held meetings with One Nation group MPs this week.
However, sources familiar with Johnson’s strategy said that he is making progress in winning support from MPs in the Conservative party’s moderate wing.
Even MPs who once wrote off Johnson’s chances now believe he is in poll position to succeed May — and a growing number of them are now willing to give him their support.
“I think he has a very good chance now unless the right splinters which it may well do,” one Conservative MP, who previously dismissed Johnson’s chances, told Business Insider.
What is the One Nation group for?
The question of how to approach the Conservative party leadership contest is just one of many questions facing the newly-formed One Nation group of MPs as it tries to counterbalance the party’s hard-Brexit bloc of MPs.
The group’s more senior members include Work & Pensions Secretary Rudd, as well as Justice Secretary David Gauke, former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, ex-policy chief George Freeman, and ex-government minister Damian Green.
Members have told Business Insider that the group is yet to establish a clear purpose, with one MP saying that while its main architects were “well-meaning,” there was no specific mission statement or formal structure.
The group this week published a list of values which included “active global leadership” and “social responsibility.”
MPs in the group said while they supported the broad values of the group, they are vague and failed to give it a distinct identity.
“The values are fine but they’re pretty hard to disagree with,” a One Nation MP told Business Insider.
“Who wouldn’t describe themselves as One Nation?
“It’s like ‘compassionate Conservatism.’ Who is going to turn around and say ‘I am not compassionate, actually’.”