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The Tories need a leader who can break the mould. Boris is their only choice

Former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson departs his home in London, Britain, 12 June 2019
'Boris alone has the belief in Brexit, the determination to deliver it, and the ability to defeat Labour in an election'

I don’t know if the Tory leadership candidates have seen Hamilton, the Broadway hit about the founding father who shaped America’s government.

“You got more than you gave,” Aaron Burr says to Alexander Hamilton. “And I wanted what I got,” replies Hamilton. “You don’t get a win unless you play in the game / You get love for it, you get hate for it / You get nothing if you / Wait for it.”

After waiting and waiting for it – for a Brexit deal with Brussels, MPs to accept the one-sided treaty she agreed, and the Conservatives to find peace over Europe – Theresa May’s premiership has shown that, while politics is a serious business, it is also a game, and a game that needs to be won.

The next prime minister will need to play the game in Brussels, where they need to agree a different deal, and in Westminster, where they need to unite the Conservative Party as best they can, keep the DUP onside, and keep the Government together. They will need to play the game in the country and win an election against a dangerous and radicalised Labour Party.

The questions facing all the candidates, therefore, are who can deliver Brexit, in a form that is recognisably Brexit? And who can lead the Conservatives into a general election and win?

The only answer is Boris Johnson. Despite his flaws and indiscretions, and despite the qualities of the other candidates, Boris alone has the belief in Brexit, the determination to deliver it, and the ability to defeat Labour in an election.

This is all that matters. For as the candidates compare backstories and argue about policy, it is easy to forget the trouble the Conservatives are in. After a decade of austerity, pay stagnation and fraying public services, they are under pressure from Labour. After breaking their promise to get Britain out of the European Union by March, the Brexit Party is breathing down their necks.

As the European elections showed, this squeeze brings an existential danger. The Conservatives recorded the worst national election performance in their history, winning 8.8 per cent of the vote and finishing fifth.

Polls show public opinion is splitting four ways, between the Tories and the Brexit Party, and Labour and the Lib Dems. With Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, anything could happen.

The Tories simply have to get Brexit done. If they do not, they face destruction as an electoral force. But even if Brexit happens, they face electoral upheaval, because some Remain-supporting Conservatives will inevitably take their votes elsewhere. The Tories therefore need to deliver Brexit but also build a new coalition of voters that can keep them in government.

A technocratic or run-of-the-mill leader cannot pull this off. Nor can a politician who communicates poorly or lacks charisma. The Conservatives need somebody capable of breaking the mould, somebody who can keep as much of their existing electoral coalition together while also winning over Labour supporters in Scotland and Wales and in the Midlands and North of England.

Boris’s emphasis so far – on economic growth, on wages, on education, skills and apprenticeships, on devolution to city mayors, transport infrastructure and broadband, on law and order and immigration control – suggests he knows his target voters.

He also knows his MPs. Some of them question his willingness to stay on top of his brief. But he has made clear he will be a prime minister who delegates and trusts the “team of stars” he appoints to his Cabinet.

Of course, he brings risks. Critics point to some of his more colourful and controversial past statements. His promise to cut income tax for higher earners was ill considered. And we do not yet know the detail of his Brexit plans.

Unless he is prepared to be bold and brave, he will not change the weather in Europe, and unless he does that, his determination to leave the EU by October will bring about a confrontation with Parliament, and an early general election.

Boris also suffers from a personal Catch-22. When he is very much himself, his critics write him off as unserious and unstatesmanlike. When he shows his serious side, they say he has lost his mojo. But he is learning to balance his sense of fun – which is a key part of his appeal – with the discipline of high office.

And as conventional politicians around the world are learning, flaws these days are strengths while apparent perfection is a flaw. When a clean-cut politician errs, he is a hypocrite. When a politician like Boris errs, he survives because he has never claimed to be perfect.

Imperfect he may be, but he has a record as a winning campaigner, twice in London and once, against all the odds, in the Brexit referendum. His enemies might hate him for it, but Boris knows how to play the game and win. And that is why he must be the Tories’ man.