This article was originally published in August 2022. It is being repromoted following reports that Boris Johnson intends to stand for the Conservative Party leadership.
The Conservative government was unpopular and facing defeat – possibly annihilation – at the next general election. The prime minister, who once had the support of the right of the parliamentary party and the Tory press (despite having been a Remainer), was viewed by them at best with suspicion, at worst with hostility. The problems for the country and the party appeared insurmountable; pessimism prevailed.
In desperation, Conservatives MPs concluded that there was only one person who could turn around their electoral prospects. Yes, he was a divisive figure of dubious integrity and ministerial competence (he had not impressed when last in office) but he was a vote winner, capable of reaching parts of the electorate that no other Conservative could reach. And so Conservative MPs and members (often against their better judgement) chose Boris Johnson as leader of the party and prime minister in July 2019. The electoral gamble paid off, too. By the following December he had a majority of 80.
Now let us take a wild guess at how Boris Johnson envisages late 2023/early 2024 playing out. The Conservative government is facing defeat – possibly annihilation – at the next general election. The prime minister, who once had the support of the right of the parliamentary party and the Tory press (despite having been a Remainer), is viewed by them at best with suspicion, at worst with hostility. The problems for the country and the party appear insurmountable; pessimism prevails.
In desperation, Conservatives MPs conclude that there is only one person who could turn around their electoral prospects. Yes, he is a divisive figure and some doubt his integrity and ministerial competence (he did not impress when last in office) but he is a vote winner, capable of reaching parts of the electorate that no other Conservative could reach (remember that 80 seat majority). And so, the prime minister is removed and Conservative MPs and members (often against their better judgement) choose Boris Johnson to replace them.
As I say, this is merely a guess at how Johnson might see the future (he has not confided in me, in case you were wondering) but why would he not be thinking along those lines? We know that his optimism and self-belief are considerable. We know that he was ambitious to be prime minister and stay prime minister. We know that he considered his removal to be a great injustice and the consequence of MPs acting like a herd of irrational wildebeest unnecessarily panicked into a stampede. We know that people around him peddled fantasies about him being immediately restored to office by a membership write-in campaign, and that he did little to discourage them. There is a sense that his story is not yet done, that he is entitled to another go at the top job. Churchill, after all, had a second term.
[See also: Who will replace Liz Truss as prime minister?]
He can also claim that both Tory members and Tory voters prefer him to either of the candidates to be his successor. It has evidently been to Liz Truss’s advantage that she remained loyal to him. Rishi Sunak has not expressed regret for his actions in helping to force Johnson out but he has certainly not sought to highlight them as he might have done, presenting himself as a person of integrity and high standards in contrast to his opponent’s tolerance of Johnson’s dishonesty. Presumably Sunak views that as a vote-losing strategy.
Johnson’s popularity with the party membership appears to be improving as memories of Downing Street parties fade. The particular issue that forced him out is probably already forgotten among most of the electorate (how many people remember the name Christopher Pincher?).
Truss, who is predicted to win the leadership contest, meanwhile, is unlikely to have much of a popularity honeymoon even before a ferocious cost-of-living crisis over the winter. It is also probable that some of the promises made to her supporters will face problems when confronted by reality. On occasion she will side with reality. Her supporters will not forgive her for that.
Bring all of this together and it is not impossible to imagine that the situation in late 2023 – the government heading to defeat, a vulnerable prime minister unpopular with MPs – may look a lot like spring 2019. And the Conservative Party, when faced with such a situation, may come up with the same solution.
There are reasons why none of this may happen. The Privileges Committee, which is investigating whether Johnson misled MPs over Downing Street parties, may propose a punishment that could result in him losing his seat. New scandals may emerge. Johnson might decide that his prime ministerial race is run, after all. Truss may be more popular than assumed. Conservative MPs might take the principled decision that putting someone so manifestly ill-suited to high office into Downing Street a second time really would be beyond the pale. (Some of these scenarios are more credible than others.)
The point is not so much that Johnson is destined to return (in truth, this is a rather fanciful scenario – surely?), but it is quite possible that he and some of his supporters think that he might and will act accordingly: keeping his profile high; putting some distance between himself and his successor; hinting at his ambitions. Johnson has, of course, plenty of experience of this. If this is what he decides to do, he will make an already challenging task for his successor that much more difficult.