Would Boris Johnson be able to stitch Brexit coalition together?

Boris Johnson Image copyright PA

We finally heard at length from the front runner. The politician who, as things stand, is the most likely to enter No 10 in six weeks time and take over not just as Conservative leader, but as prime minister of the whole country.

What did we learn from Boris Johnson's appearance today?

Not much about the kind of policies that he might pursue. Nor much really about the kind of leader he might be. But what about the reason that his formal launch was packed with Conservatives of all stripes?

Well, there is something about him that the other candidates don't have. It might repel you. It might delight you. But he is a rare kind of politician, one who almost never receives an apathetic shrug.

His flair for causing offence is more famous than his reputation for managing policy. His judgement is questioned profoundly by many of those who have worked alongside him.

His supporters acknowledge tonight that allowing the crowd to jeer journalists who were asking legitimate questions was a misstep.

But mistakes that might have ended other political careers by now have not disqualified him from holding the highest office. And he inspires fierce loyalty in others, particularly those who were part of his team when he was in charge in London's City Hall.

Maybe it's the sheer force of personality, ego and his desire for power that are bigger than the scale of the political errors he has made.

Maybe too it's the ability to win - unlikely victories in London and the referendum - that means his Tory colleagues and rivals find it hard to resist a politician who can overturn the usual political obstacles.

But perhaps more than anything else, the tactic that has protected him? Unlike other politicians he has never pretended, or perhaps aspired, to be perfect. That's no excuse of course for offence he has caused, or a cavalier approach to vital details that matter.

In particular, his handling of the case of the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during his time at the Foreign Office appalled many in Westminster, let alone the country.

But the reason why he is, at the moment, clearly out front in this race is because although you might love to hate him, or hate to love him, Boris Johnson is, for the Tory party, almost impossible to ignore.

And whether that pull is a dangerous alchemy or an irresistible charisma, today at least it has resulted in one big achievement.

The room was full of Conservative politicians from a party that has spent the last three years knocking lumps out of each other and strikingly, they were from both wings.

There were hard-core Eurosceptics and properly convinced Remainers all there supporting Mr Johnson.

Image copyright Reuters

It was notable too that he was plain that leaving with no deal was not his desired outcome, even though he has suggested to some of the Brexiteer parts of his party that he would pursue that course of action gladly, leaving at Halloween whatever happens.

Trying to square off former Remainers who are desperate to avoid the turmoil of no deal, and Eurosceptics who are resolute that it must be a genuine option?

Remind you of anyone?

Theresa May and Boris Johnson are night and day as political characters. But if he is successful in following her into Number 10, he too in a sense would be trying to stitch together a coalition in the Tory Party that can last through inevitable compromise and likely political disappointment.

For all his Brexit rhetoric, he is not pursuing a purist stance like some of the candidates - whether that's Esther McVey on the Eurosceptic wing or Rory Stewart on the soft Brexit wing - but trying overtly to juggle both sides of the party.

He may face the same profound truth that Mrs May did that as far as Europe goes, it is impossible to please all the Conservative people all of the time.

Theresa May 2.0, he would not be. But whether he has the political skill to keep his party, and a majority in Parliament together, will be the question demanded of him too.

It should go without saying by now that politics these days is deeply unpredictable.

There is plenty of time for the maths in this contest to change fundamentally, for the frontrunner to fail, and those lurking in the middle of the pack suddenly to emerge.

Tomorrow in the first round of proper voting, we'll have a better idea of where the numbers are going.

On Tuesday 18 June BBC One will be hosting a live election debate between the Conservative MPs who are still in the race.

If you would like to ask the candidates a question live on air, use the form below. It should be open to all of them, not a specific politician.

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