In an uncharacteristic act of punctuality, I filed a piece for the new-year edition of the New Statesman in advance of Christmas. My article made the case that 2023 would be a year in which the disgruntled right – which managed to mislay two leaders of its own choosing in the latter half of 2022 – would make life very difficult for Rishi Sunak. I even made a passing reference to the possibility that we may see an attempted return by Boris Johnson. I thought no more about the issue for the rest of the holiday season.
Now that politics as normal has resumed, it is clear that the idea of a Johnson comeback is gaining momentum. The ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman wrote in the Times that the campaign to reinstate Johnson had begun, while the Tory peer Stephen Greenhalgh – a long-time ally of Johnson – told Newsnight that there was “a strong probability” Johnson would return as prime minister in 2023. A moment later, Greenhalgh abandoned his caution to declare that “I’m sure Cincinnatus will return to No 10 at some point this year”.
Perhaps the topic deserves a bit more than a passing reference. The idea of Johnson returning is not, of course, a new one. Some of us raised the possibility even before he had formally stopped being prime minister. The reference to Cincinnatus in his July resignation speech was hardly a subtle one and his rather peevish tone – putting his removal down to MPs being overcome by an irrational herd instinct – did not suggest a man who had come to terms with his fate.
Nor, evidently, had he. When Liz Truss fell, Johnson quickly returned from holiday and began campaigning to succeed her. For a moment, No 10 looked his for the taking.
He initially attracted a decent number of endorsements from MPs but new announcements dried up and momentum was lost. His supporters said that they had the numbers but many of us were sceptical – it all sounded a little bit like the schoolboy who assured his classmates that, yes, he had a girlfriend but that she went to a different school.
Except, according to Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee (who would know), Johnson did have the numbers to stand after all. But for whatever reason, he did not put his name forward.
Immediately, some commentators wrote Johnson off. His supporters had been led up the garden path, it was said, he had let them down and they will have learned not to trust him again. Johnson had missed his last chance.
Already, this view appears out of date. Johnson’s allies clearly have not given up. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, the former Conservative chairman Jake Berry has caused no end of trouble, Nadine Dorries (her mood not improved by the shelving of Channel 4 privatisation) is writing a book, reported to be provisionally entitled The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson, and Priti Patel and Peter Cruddas have formed the Conservative Democratic Organisation which is clearly designed to reinstall Johnson (incidentally, Greenhalgh declared his support for it hours before his appearance on Newsnight).
[See also: Can Rishi Sunak survive the wrath of the right?]
Sunak can have little expectation that Johnson’s acolytes will play nicely – Cruddas has already taken to Twitter to accuse the Prime Minister of saying that he saw membership of the euro as “an opportunity”, a toxic accusation in the Conservative Party and an extraordinary misrepresentation of what Sunak said.
Johnson did not run in October and even he may have concluded that he was ill-suited to the task of restoring financial credibility by taking unpopular decisions. Next time, the issue may be more of a political crisis rather than a financial one.
Johnson also has the Privileges Committee inquiry hanging over him, which presumably will be resolved within a few months. This may conclude disastrously for him and end up with Johnson losing his seat, but if the committee determines that any misleading of the House of Commons over partygate allegations was inadvertent (and that is a plausible outcome), the inquiry is unlikely to be career-ending. He also faces the challenge of defending a marginal seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Matthew Parris wrote this week that he had heard “wild rumours” that Johnson was off to the safe seat of Derbyshire Dales. I suspect that there are similar rumours for other constituencies. It would be messy to move seats but not impossible.
The big question is whether Conservative MPs would tolerate Johnson’s return. They are the ones who would have to force out Sunak, and then some of them would have to serve in Johnson’s government (I suspect this latter point was the problem Johnson foresaw when he withdrew in October).
By late 2023, however, the position of Johnson-sceptic MPs will be weaker. Electoral defeat will appear to be imminent, activists (very sore after a miserable set of local election results in May) mutinous and candidate selections on the new constituency boundaries potentially problematic for sitting MPs. It would take a brave Conservative MP to defy the mood of the party membership.
Maybe Johnson does not really have the appetite for it. He has been prime minister once and won a great election victory, something he is unlikely to repeat in 2024. But we should not assume this will deter him.
The more one thinks about it, the less incredible a Johnson return appears. We might not be done with him yet.