Conservative Diary

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Tories prepare for Alan Johnson

A fascinating piece in The Guardian suggests that Labour rebels hope to force Brown out by next Tuesday.

If Brown is successfully toppled then the most likely successor is the Health Secretary Alan Johnson.

JOHNSON&BLAIR Nick Boles - now our candidate in Grantham - wrote an article for The Spectator in 2006 that set out why Johnson was the candidate most feared by the Conservatives.  Boles described Johnson as "affable, easy-going, classless — and, apparently, without enemies." 

Earlier today I spoke to Tory strategists and got a measure of how they'd attack a Johnson-led Labour Party.  Here are some of the thoughts I was given:

  • Johnson's qualities were readily conceded but things are now too bad for the Labour brand.  One contact told me that Johnson has "EQ".  "He talks human and that'll be a big advance on Brown".  The same person, however, noted that Johnson's effect would be temporary and inadequate.  "Labour are in the low twenties.  There's zero chance that he can get Labour back to 35%.  Labour will still be divided, still intellectually exhausted, still lacking activists and money."
  • Another contact noted Alan Johnson's defeat in the 2007 contest for Labour's Deputy Leadership.  "He's okay on TV but a poor campaigner.  He shouldn't have lost to Harriet Harman but he did."  Tory strategists think that this will mean one of two things: (1) He'll face a challenger for the leadership that will at least leave him bloodied; (2) There'll be another coronation and he'll be out campaigned in a General Election by David Cameron.
  • Johnson will be painted as a "roadblock" to reform.  That tactic has been roadtested by Andrew Lansley in a recent speech on Alan Johnson's record on health (PDF).  The Conservative health spokesman presented his opposite number as lacking in ideas and beholden to outdated thinking.  Some senior Tories do not think that Mr Johnson is clever enough to be leader and believe that his lack of policy grasp would be exposed in the heat of election examination.
  • Tory tacticians see opportunity in Alan Johnson's hostility to faith schools.  They believe this could be a damaging issue for the former Education Secretary in many marginal Labour seats.
  • The Brownites won't forgive their man being ousted.  CCHQ expect a new cycle of recrimination if another Labour Prime Minister is forced from office.  Both in the same Parliament.

Tories are not complacent about the Johnson threat but neither are they fretting.  "We'll keep to the same strategy," I'm told, "Johnson is a better salesman for Labour than Brown but he is part of the same government that has failed on the economy, failed on crime and failed on schools."

Nick Boles himself is also confident that Johnson can be beaten.  He told ConHome: "However personally appealing Alan Johnson may be, he cannot at this late stage repair the deep fissures in the Labour Party or offer the British people real change from the failed approach of the last decade."

Tim Montgomerie


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