A spectre is haunting Westminster: Boris Johnson. The former prime minister has form on this. He has an unnerving ability – either by design or because of his innate nature – to make nearly any situation about him. Before Johnson became PM, it was a standing joke among journalists at Conservative conference – and bear with me, because you take your laughs where you can at Conservative conference – that each year Johnson would turn up and riotously upstage whichever poor suit had the misfortune of delivering the party leader’s speech.
Even now, he still acts like a black hole for attention. Towards the end of last year, the appearance of Johnson’s name on a list of MPs calling for Rishi Sunak to lift the ban on new onshore wind dragged the story up the news agenda, with some more histrionic Westminster watchers calling the intervention a challenge to Sunak’s leadership. Likewise, when Johnson announced he would be attending the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in November, when Sunak was not, nobody could help but interpret this as a direct challenge to the Prime Minister’s authority.
Barely a week goes by without another story highlighting Johnson’s status as the king across the water. Last week, the Times reported (on its front page) that Johnson’s friends were suggesting that he would decline to challenge Sunak after the local elections in May, but only if he were offered a safer electoral prospect than his current seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Johnson has since committed to standing in Uxbridge, but this story adds to the growing pile of briefings from “friends of Johnson” which appear to be preparing the ground for the return of the king. The local elections are a long way off and a lot could change before then.
With so much noise being made by his “friends”, one could be forgiven for wondering what Johnson himself makes of all this. In short, we do not know. The former PM is keeping his cards close to his chest. It is hard to discern what Johnson is thinking if he does not want you to know. When he made a mad dash back from the Caribbean following the fall of Liz Truss’s premiership, I would speak to one ally who would swear blind they had spoken to him and that he was definitely standing to be PM. Then, I would put the phone down, ring another, and be confidently informed there was not the remotest chance their man was going for it.
Of course, in the end it is not Johnson’s choice. Power in this case – as so often in the last few years – lies in the hands of Conservative MPs. Only if they decide they want him back can Johnson return.
Suppose that the Conservatives experience a catastrophic defeat in this summer’s local elections. Will they take Johnson back? MPs tend to say that there are somewhere between 20 and 30 of their colleagues who definitely would. Johnson still benefits from a furious loyalty from these MPs, who remain convinced – pointing to the 2019 general election as their primary evidence – that he holds an electoral pull unmatched by any other modern politician.
Beyond their ranks, however, there is scant support for a return. Some MPs point to the imminent parliamentary investigation into whether he misled the House of Commons over partygate, as indicative of the political risk he still poses for the Tory party. Even for those who do not think the investigation will find him guilty, it serves as a reminder of the character defects that brought Johnson down. “I see no evidence those flaws have gone away,” one MP told me.
Other MPs doubt whether Johnson still holds the same electoral pull he once did. His personal approval ratings fell during his tenure as PM, and many suspect the old magic may not work anymore. “The challenges facing the country are manifestly different to what they were in 2019,” one government minister told me recently. “Right now we need delivery more than charisma,” was another MP’s judgement. There is a sense in parliament that Johnson was a prime minister for good times, and we are no longer in good times.
More than anything, the attitude of most Conservative politicians was summed up to me by the MP who wearily declared that “another change looks insane”. Tories know they have tested the public’s patience with their endless chopping and changing of leaders. The parliamentary party finds itself largely united around the position that a period of stability is needed.
All of this is not to say that Johnson will not become leader again. MPs are likely correct that he poses a significant political risk to their party, and that another change would infuriate and bemuse the public. However, if we look at recent political regicides, they tend not to stem from a reasoned decision that change is needed but, rather, a sudden emotional outpouring whereby MPs decide they simply cannot go on and something – anything – must be done.
Given the volatility of contemporary politics, it would be bold to bet against another moment of emotional upheaval like that. Or, to put it another way, if there is one thing we have learned over the past few years, it would be a bold move to bet against chaos, and an even bolder move to bet against Boris Johnson emerging as the beneficiary of chaos.