Boris Johnson’s Getting Divorced, But Tories Are Unlikely to Dump Him

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s wife seems to have had enough of him. Amid reports of his alleged serial infidelities, the question now is whether the colorful Tory’s colleagues feel the same way, jeopardizing his chances of becoming prime minister.

Johnson, 54, quit Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet in July, arguing that he could not support her policy of staying closely tied to the European Union’s trade rules after Brexit. His resignation dramatically boosted his popularity among the party faithful at a time when May faces growing calls to quit as leader -- especially from those who share Johnson’s views on Brexit.

To get the top job, the former foreign secretary needs to win enough support from his fellow Conservative lawmakers, some of whom see him as a proven winner -- he was twice elected Mayor of London -- and the man who can help them keep their seats in Parliament. He would then need to woo grassroots Tory party members, who are set to have the final say.

On Thursday, Johnson topped a survey of 1,300 Tory activists who were asked for their views on who should be the next party leader. He was named as the best choice by 35 percent of those who took part in the poll (his closest rival was Home Secretary Sajid Javid, on 15 percent).

“Johnson’s resignation -- plus his seniority, relative youth, the recognition factor and his euroskeptic record -- has given him the freedom to speak out and lent wings to his potential candidacy,” said Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, which conducted the survey.

Beliefs

Yet that research was carried out before news emerged of Johnson’s split from his wife, Marina Wheeler, who is also 54. Tory members are typically older than supporters of other parties; many also hold traditional Christian beliefs on marriage and conservative social views. It’s not clear what view they will have of Johnson’s personal life -- though reports of his alleged affairs have been circulating for years.

“For Boris, no news is bad news,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. But while he needs to keep in the public eye ahead of any leadership contest, Johnson doesn’t have history on his side. “It’s very noticeable that, if you look at modern-day incumbents of No. 10, virtually all of them have had lasting marriages and very little, if anything, in the way of torrid affairs.”

One risk would be if Wheeler speaks out to criticize him after the divorce. That seems unlikely at this stage, given that their statement Friday insisted that they remain “friends” and will continue to jointly support their children.

Unsuitable

Johnson has been counted out before -- such as after he pulled out of the 2016 campaign for the Tory leadership when his supposed ally, Michael Gove, declared that he was not suitable to be prime minister. But his leadership ambitions have never been far from the headlines, not least when Donald Trump said during his U.K. visit Johnson would make a “great” prime minister.

Ultimately, his chances of succeeding May will depend on who the other candidates are. If Johnson gets through a ballot of his fellow MPs into a run-off against one rival, the euroskeptic Tory membership is likely to back the candidate with the best credentials on supporting Brexit.

As the face of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, Johnson would be hard to beat.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.