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9 January 2023

Boris Johnson won’t save the Tories

There is no desire among the electorate for the return of the great charlatan.

By Martin Fletcher

Are you sick of his self-obsession and self-aggrandising? Are you fed up with his disloyalty and destructiveness? Don’t you wish he’d just shut up and go away? No, no – not Prince Harry. I mean Boris Johnson.

At last, after nearly seven years, we have a prime minister who is neither a charlatan nor an ideological dogmatist. Whether or not you agree with Rishi Sunak’s politics, and despite his refusal to say if he sees a private GP, he seems relatively honest, diligent and mainstream. He has, thankfully, restored a degree of normality to the scarcely credible melodrama of recent British politics. Yet Johnson, like some unswattable mosquito at night, keeps buzzing around, threatening a faux-Churchillian comeback.

“Is Boris Johnson bouncing back towards No 10?”, the estimable Tim Shipman asks in the latest Sunday Times. “It’s bring back Boris or die… With Rishi in No 10, we are heading into the long, cold and brutal wasteland of thankless opposition,” the unctuous Nadine Dorries proclaims in the Mail on Sunday. “Brace yourself for a Boris Johnson comeback”, Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, warned in the Times last week.

On Tuesday evening the Great Lost Leader will address a Carlton Club dinner described by a Johnson supporter as “an opportunity to show that Boris hasn’t gone away”. The Times columnist Matthew Parris has reported rumours that Johnson might abandon his marginal Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency for the safe Tory seat of Derbyshire Dales.

Led by Peter Cruddas, the Tory donor whom Johnson ennobled against the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the former PM’s acolytes have launched the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a Tory equivalent of Labour’s Momentum that is designed to empower the party’s Johnson-adoring rank and file.

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Johnson could end all this speculation in an instant if he chose, but he doesn’t. On the contrary, he assiduously stokes it. “Hasta la Vista,” he declared at the end of his final Prime Minister’s Questions last July. In his farewell speech outside No 10 in the same month he compared himself to Cincinnatus, the former consul recalled from retirement to rescue Rome. “I believe I have much to offer, but I’m afraid this is simply not the right time,” he said after withdrawing from October’s party leadership race.

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Since then he has ostentatiously upstaged Sunak by flying to last November’s Cop27 climate summit in Egypt, supported a back-bench rebellion in favour of more onshore wind farms, and issued his own portentous Christmas message. Meanwhile his supporters bad-mouth Sunak, share messages with the hashtag #BBB (Bring Back Boris), and spread the false narrative that Johnson was deposed by an undemocratic coup with his glorious revolution only half complete.  

[See also: Is Substack the future of media?]

Is the threat of a Johnson comeback real? Perhaps not. He is making plenty of money as a backbencher (£1m through speeches alone), while the endless speculation on leadership serves his interests well. It keeps him in the limelight, and gives him a certain leverage over Sunak. Woe betide the Prime Minister if he goes soft on Brexit, Ukraine or levelling up.

That said, the narcissist’s giant ego has been badly bruised. Johnson doubtless harbours a deep grudge against his successor, whose resignation triggered his downfall and whom he probably regards as a vastly inferior politician. And he would dearly love to emulate his hero, Winston Churchill, by staging a spectacular return from the proverbial wilderness.

For Sunak the first moment of real peril will come if – as seems likely – the Tories are trounced in May’s local elections, the populist Reform UK starts syphoning off disgruntled right-wingers, and – God forbid – Nigel Farage re-enters the political fray. 

No matter that the Privileges Committee would be raking over the partygate scandal by then, or that the inquiry into Johnson’s controversial handling of the Covid pandemic might finally have started, or that he could not be sure of holding his seat the following year.

As Goodman wrote: “The cry will go up: only one man can save us! Emails from local activists, and some not so local, will fill the spam folders of Conservative MPs. Polls of varying reliability will be spread before their bewildered eyes. There may even be hints of deselection. Only one man has the charm, the jokes, the charisma, the campaigning razzamataz. Save your seat! Now or never! Bring back Boris!”

Such a scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility, though technically Sunak’s leadership cannot be challenged for a year. The Mail, Telegraph and Express would be clamouring for Johnson’s return. So would party members. Conservative MPs would be desperate, and they are suckers for quick fixes as we saw with Brexit – the cataclysm that was supposed to miraculously unleash growth.

They might even be right, for Johnson is undeniably a brilliant campaigner and the only Conservative politician with a chance of retaining the party’s Red Wall seats. But I strongly suspect that they would be deluding themselves. 

Leave aside the obvious question of whether the country would stomach a third Conservative leadership election in a year. My sense is that the electorate as a whole has moved on, and that there is precious little appetite for a return to the bitterness and incompetence, the dishonesty and divisiveness, the cronyism and relentless scandals, of Johnson’s three-year premiership.

Where is the evidence of his continuing popularity? It is true that he won a “stonking majority” in the 2019 general election, but he was running against the scarcely electable Jeremy Corbyn. By the time Johnson resigned he had an approval rating of -48 (yes, minus 48), and during the previous 15 months the Tories had crashed to spectacular by-election defeats in the formerly impregnable seats of Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton. 

Nor should we forget that Johnson was the first prime minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office, and was forced to resign in disgrace. Or that he bequeathed his hapless successor, Liz Truss, the highest inflation in 40 years, the heaviest tax burden since the 1940s and record debt. Indeed he set the stage for the lunacy of Trussonomics.

We’ve tried Johnson with all his cakeism and boosterism, his jingoism and culture wars, his lies and con man’s trickery. I may be guilty of wishful thinking, but I believe the country has finally seen through him and his shameless populism. Were the Conservative Party to turn to him once more it would mark the completion of its moral implosion, and the ultimate triumph of expediency over principle, and in all probability for nothing.

[See also: The left should try to shape Starmerism, not bury it]