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21 October 2022

Boris Johnson’s path back to power is a treacherous one

Getting on the leadership ballot is a challenge for the former PM; seeing off the Labour threat could prove impossible.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Earlier this year, Boris Johnson stubbornly clung to power until, finally, he was hounded out in a blizzard of condemnation from fellow Tory MPs. At his last Prime Minister’s Questions, he remained defiant, channelling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator with his “Hasta la vista, baby” sign-off, and with his “mission largely accomplished – for now” remark.

The former journalist is fond of spinning a yarn and, as Johnson’s allies begin sounding out Tory MPs in the wake of Liz Truss’s resignation speech yesterday, the latest one is that he can swoop in and return as prime minister.

It would be some story, but it’s missing a few crucial facts, the obvious one being that Johnson became toxic with voters after the partygate, Chris Pincher and Owen Paterson scandals. Polls of Conservative members suggest Johnson is still the most popular figure in the party outside Westminster, but to get on the ballot in this snap leadership contest he would have to convince 100 of the 357 Tory MPs that he can provide unity.

He left office a deeply divisive figure among his parliamentary colleagues, amid a cabinet revolt and scores of resignations. To many, it is personal. For example, Tory MP John Baron suggested yesterday that he would prefer to sit as an independent MP rather than serve under Johnson.

The Conservatives are around 30 points behind Labour in the polls and the government is being forced to roll back spending to rescue the economy. Any path to victory requires hard work and saying “no” a lot – not things Johnson enjoys.

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[See also: Liz Truss’s resignation shows parliamentary democracy is working, not failing]

But, given the rancorous end of Truss’s premiership, can anyone bring the party together? Rishi Sunak, who stormed the MPs’ rounds in the last Tory leadership race, is attracting significant support and should have no issue reaching the threshold. Despite the former chancellor being proved right on warnings that Truss would be a catastrophe in No 10, many MPs still resent what they see as Sunak’s pivotal role in Johnson’s downfall and strongly oppose the tax rises he favoured. The right of the party has no clear figurehead yet, with Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman showing no interest so far in a fresh tilt.

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All of which leaves Penny Mordaunt, a grassroots favourite who stayed loyal to both Johnson and, as Leader of the House of Commons, to Truss. She would give Sunak a run for his money should she make the ballot. “All roads lead to Penny,” one MP told me yesterday.

Johnson will be mulling his future as he jets back from a holiday in the Caribbean today. Does he fancy the uphill struggle of persuading MPs and the public it will be different this time? Or, as some suggest, might he opt instead for the role of kingmaker before Monday’s nominations deadline? After all, the after-dinner speaking circuit is a lucrative prospect for former PMs.

One way or another, this political rollercoaster will continue, and, come next Friday, Britain will have yet another prime minister.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Will the Conservatives finally make a sensible choice?]