How Boris Johnson was Brought to his Knees by the ‘Cuckoo Nest Plot’

Sir Lynton Crosby, Boris Johnson’s campaign manager, was making final preparations for the formal announcement of Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership bid when his phone rang at 8.53 on Thursday morning.

“Hi Lynton, it’s Michael Gove here,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m running.”

“Running what?” Sir Lynton replied.

“I’m running for the leadership myself.”

Sir Lynton was stunned. With two hours to go until the launch of Mr Johnson’s leadership bid, Mr Gove, the man who was supposed to be making up the “dream ticket” with him, had not so much stabbed him in the back as run him through with a pikestaff.

The Telegraph understands that Sir Lynton asked Mr Gove whether he had told Mr Johnson. He had not, but said he intended to. The call, however, was never made.

By noon, Mr Johnson, the front-runner for the Tory leadership, was no longer a runner at all, ousted by what was being called a “cuckoo nest plot”. Having been comprehensively stitched up by his running mate and several other “supporters”, he threw in the towel, his ambitions in ruins.

Perhaps Mr Johnson should have seen it coming. The history of the Conservative Party is, after all, littered with the shattered careers of leadership front-runners who were knifed by their colleagues: Maudling, Heath, Heseltine, Clarke, Portillo, Davis.

Mr Johnson’s most loyal friends were apoplectic. One described Mr Gove’s behaviour as “utter treachery”, and suspicions quickly surfaced that Mr Gove had intended all along to use the popular Mr Johnson to win the referendum vote before ambushing him at the last moment.

“Gove is a —- who set this up from start,” said one, bluntly. Could they be right?

It is no secret that Mr Johnson had been broadly supportive of Europe before the referendum campaign began, and that David Cameron had expected to rely on his support for Remain.

Mr Johnson, though, fell for the persuasive powers of a certain Michael Gove in deciding he was, after all, in favour of leaving the EU.

At what is rapidly becoming an infamous dinner party at Mr Johnson’s home on February 16, Mr Johnson, Mr Gove and their wives sat down with the newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev to discuss politics.

Mr Gove’s wife Sarah Vine described how: “Boris was very agitated, genuinely tortured as to which way to go.” It seems that by the end of the night Mr Gove, a lifelong Eurosceptic with an “obsession” for getting Britain out of Europe, had persuaded him which side of the fence he should come down on.

A weekend at the Chancellor’s

Mr Johnson knew he was risking everything, but the potential prize was too tempting to ignore: win the EU referendum, and the keys to Number 10 would surely be his.

Once he had committed to the cause, Mr Johnson was a formidable campaigner, with his uncanny knack of connecting with voters of every background and every hue. Yet doubts quickly surfaced about just what Mr Gove was up to.

On the first weekend of the referendum campaign, Mr Gove and Ms Vine were not getting down to work with Mr Johnson, but spending the weekend at Dorneywood, the Chancellor’s official country residence, as guests of George Osborne. Perhaps Mr Osborne, a keen chess player who loves few things as much as political plotting, was already making his own arrangements for what might happen if the Brexit vote went against him.

Mr Gove carried on preparing David Cameron for Prime Minister’s Questions. He had weekly dinners with Mr Osborne. Mr Johnson surely wondered why.


He got part of the answer on Sunday, when Mr Gove’s camp briefed journalists that Mr Osborne could remain as Chancellor in a Boris Johnson Cabinet. Mr Johnson dismissed the claim out of hand, but it was the first outward sign of serious differences in the victorious Leave camp.

Tension had started building the previous night in a phone call between Mr Gove and Mr Johnson. Mr Gove “demanded to be chancellor” in a Johnson government, according to one source. Mr Johnson agreed, but drew the line when Mr Gove said he wanted his chief of staff to be Dominic Cummings, his former special adviser at the Department of Education and a key strategist in the Leave campaign. Mr Cummings is a controversial and at times divisive figure, and Mr Johnson put his foot down.

An accident by email

There were further suspicions that Mr Gove was playing games when the Leave campaigners came together at Mr Johnson’s Oxfordshire home at lunchtime on Sunday. ITV News cameras showed up to film people arriving, and one journalist let slip that they had been tipped off by Sarah Vine.

Still, Mr Gove was saying all the right things. He told Mr Johnson: “I do not have what it takes and I do not have the qualities to be prime minister.” No danger there then.

On Monday, though, Mr Johnson provided more evidence of differences among Brexiteers with a Daily Telegraph column that claimed Britain would remain a member of the EU’s single market. Leave campaigners began to think that Mr Johnson had gone soft on Brexit, though sources close to Mr Johnson insist the article was co-edited by Mr Gove. Was he setting Mr Johnson up for a fall?

Mr Gove and, as we now know, his wife considered their next move. With a meeting between Mr Gove and Mr Johnson in the diary for Tuesday, Ms Vine emailed her husband to say: “You MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support.” The email was leaked to Sky News after being “accidentally” sent to a member of the public, making the rift between the two men front-page news.

Wednesday brought an even more significant meeting, this time between Mr Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, the highly-regarded energy minister and Leave campaigner. Mr Johnson and his key ally Dominic Raab had been hoping to convince her to give up her own leadership ambitions and throw her weight behind his campaign.

Mr Johnson left the meeting believing he had succeeded. Insiders said Ms Leadsom had signed a letter supporting his leadership bid. She would be unveiled as the big surprise at his launch event the next day, with Mr Gove introducing her as the newest convert, and Ms Leadsom introducing Mr Johnson.

The invitations to Mr Johnson’s launch event were duly texted to journalists by Mr Gove’s special adviser Henry Newman.

That evening, the Conservative Party’s Summer Ball was held at the Hurlingham Club in London, and there was, of course, only one topic of conversation.

Mr Johnson had 97 MPs unofficially backing him by then, but his supporters were worried it would not be enough if the Tories’ 200-plus other MPs united behind a “stop Boris” candidate. Blamed for engineering the Brexit that so many of them never wanted, he had become a hate figure for many.

Mr Cameron used the ball to make a speech in which he thanked his predecessors for their support, and hoped his successor would enjoy the same relationship (knowing full well that Sir John Major had told the Andrew Marr programme that Mr Johnson should not be PM).

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Written by PH

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