Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Katy Balls

Will Boris Johnson stage a comeback? Sunak may only have five months to find out

Boris Johnson in the Houses of Parliament
‘Many of those backing the new leader had hoped that the last leader but one would walk off into the sunset of the well-paid lecture circuit.’ Boris Johnson in the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Three years ago this week, Boris Johnson was looking ahead to a long premiership – eight years at least. As the result broke of a majority of 80 in the 2019 election the prime minister pitched himself as a Blair-like figure – heading to Sedgefield, where his party had turned the former prime minister’s seat blue, for his victory rally. The implication was clear: Johnson was a leader who would be as influential and long-lasting in British politics as Tony Blair.

Fast forward to today and things look rather different. Johnson is on the backbenches – having been forced to resign in the face of successive scandals. After Liz Truss’s short stint in the job, he launched one aborted attempt to return. His former chancellor and political rival Rishi Sunak is now in charge. The polls suggest the Conservatives are on course for a heavy defeat at the next election, which could even include Johnson’s own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Yet the news this month that Johnson will stand again as an MP in 2024 is a source of intrigue in Westminster. Many of those backing the new leader had hoped that the last leader but one would walk off into the sunset of the well-paid lecture circuit. He is certainly finding it lucrative – parliamentary records suggests he has made more than £1m since leaving No 10. “There is a chance he gets sick of declaring all his extra earnings and heads for the exit,” said one former minister wistfully at the time. Instead, to the delight of his supporters and horror of his critics, Johnson plans to stick around for the foreseeable.

With Truss, Johnson’s direct successor, also choosing to stand again, it means that Sunak faces the prospect of having two very recent former prime ministers with unfinished business in the Commons. Neither have shown any sign that they will make life easy for the new prime minister – both put their names to an amendment by the former cabinet minister Simon Clarke designed to allow onshore windfarms to be built. It is unheard of for former prime ministers to start signing amendments so quickly after leaving office.

Another MP adds that Johnson isn’t exactly being demure. “His closest allies have made it very clear he is still around,” they explain. “Theresa May was very discreet when she returned to the Commons after stepping down, but he will always have a crowd around him when in parliament.” Just this week, Sunak, Truss and Johnson gathered in the same room for the Conservative Friends of Israel’s annual business lunch. “Everyone stood up to give Rishi a standing ovation,” recalls one attender at the bash. “It was pretty awkward for Boris, who had to join in.”

Meanwhile, prominent Johnson backers Priti Patel and the Tory donor Lord Cruddas have given their support to the new Conservative Democratic Organisation – a group described by one member of the 2019 intake as “clearly anti-Rishi” – which seeks to “restore democracy” within the Tory party. It claims that party members ought to be empowered with more of a say on the direction, policy and leadership of the party after MPs were allowed to topple two prime ministers in the space of a few months. When Johnson flirted with the idea of a comeback after Truss resigned, he and his supporters repeatedly suggested that had it been down to the members – rather than MPs – he would have won out over Sunak.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks during PMQs at the House of Commons on 14 December, 2022
Prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks during PMQs at the House of Commons on 14 December, 2022. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/Reuters

Former party chairman Jake Berry has gone further – declaring in an interview: “I think Boris will come back. I wouldn’t say when. I think he will come back. He’s a bit like the Conservative party’s mistress – something he knows about. The tempting other woman. The king over the sea.” Berry’s point is that if MPs get desperate, that’s when the call will come – and if the Tories keep trailing behind Labour by 20 points, MPs are already bracing themselves for an attempt by Johnson supporters to pitch the former prime minister as the solution.

“It’s very clear that they are creating the infrastructure in parliament and outside to mount a comeback,” argues one senior Tory. “While it’s not obvious now, May 2023 would be the opening if we suffer big losses in parts of the country.” The view in the Johnson camp is effectively that Truss blew her premiership up too soon for Johnson to return. Had she managed to hang on for a bit longer until local elections and until Johnson was past the privileges committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons – which could in theory lead to a suspension and spark a byelection in his seat – then they believe he would have been the clear favourite to take over. Instead, Johnson had the privileges committee hanging over him – and a leadership election that was all about the bond markets.

Sunak could find himself facing a restive party and an old-time political rival in six months’ time if he can’t show progress. But for now, more MPs than not view a Johnson comeback in the spring as implausible. “They are deluding themselves if they think Boris is coming back before the next election,” says a former government aide. “MPs have not forgotten.” But one MP in the middle of the party points out that Johnson did technically – as verified by Sir Graham Brady – receive 100 nominations the last time round: “If he could do that at his most discredited, it suggests he has the base,” the member of the 2015 intake says. “There is not an appetite now, but 2019 is uniquely Boris’s coalition – if [local] election results are poor, it could focus minds. It would be totally wild, but we have had wild times for years.”

Should Johnson 2.0 fail to take off, there could still be a vacancy to fill in two years’ time. With a number of Tory MPs already taking the view that the next election is lost, it’s not uncommon to hear Conservative MPs discussing who, in the event of an election loss, would be the leader of the opposition. In such circumstances, the party would probably move to the right and go back to core values, including low taxes.

While a lot of MPs and aides predict that Tory rising star Kemi Badenoch would be the most likely candidate, others think a more experienced figure could step in. “You may laugh, but it’s not impossible it’s Boris or Liz,” argues a former government adviser. Such moves would, of course, face a backlash – but the thinking among some who backed Johnson and then Truss is that the party would need someone radical and experienced – which could be missing in the younger intakes.

Since entering No 10, Sunak and his team have been on a mission to take the “sugar rush” out of politics after a high-octane year of Tory psychodrama. They have had some success. But if Sunak is to succeed in the long run, his 2023 challenge isn’t just to show progress on the economy and public services – it’s also to keep his own critics and rivals at bay.

  • Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.