Key allies of Boris Johnson rallied behind the former foreign secretary on Saturday night, insisting that news of his divorce news and stories about his personal life would do nothing to damage his chances of succeeding Theresa May as Conservative leader after Brexit.
Johnson has endured lurid headlines after an announcement that he and his wife of 25 years, the lawyer Marina Wheeler, are to divorce. But on Saturday, as Johnson took time out to watch the fifth test match between England and India at the Oval in London, where he was booed by the crowd, supporters said his career trajectory would be unaffected.
The former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, who would have backed Johnson as leader in 2016 had he not stood down from the contest to succeed David Cameron, told the Observer: “Most colleagues will be sympathetic and supportive at what is a difficult time for him. I very much doubt that this will have much impact on his leadership chances.” Another friend of Johnson, who says the next party leader must be a hardline Brexiter, said: “There is a lot of sympathy. There is no reason why someone who has gone through a divorce news cannot go on to be prime minister. And this probably applies to Boris more than anyone.”
Johnson’s next high-profile appearance is expected to be at the Tory party conference early next month, where he will address an event hosted by ConservativeHome, the website for grassroots party supporters. He is expected to use a speech to call again for May to drop the Chequers deal on Brexit – over which he resigned from the cabinet in July – and back a cleaner break from the EU.
Sources close to Johnson said this would be his only appearance at the Birmingham conference. The source said Johnson would be wary of making too brazen a pitch for May’s job there, at a time when the prime minister would be trying desperately to hold the party together as she approaches the critical stages of the Brexit negotiations.
Paul Goodman, a former MP and editor of ConservativeHome, said a hall with a capacity of 1,000 had been booked for the Johnson appearance. Goodman, whose organisation regularly polls party supporters for their views on who would be the best leader, said that he did not expect Johnson’s personal problems to dent his chances in any contest. “I think Boris’s standing among party members is quite high and his standing among Tory MPs is quite low and I don’t think this will make any difference.”