If Boris Johnson leads the Conservative Party into the next election, I will lose several quite painful bets. This is nothing compared to what the nation might lose, of course, but it’s important to declare one’s interests.
Mere days ago, the prospect of such a restoration seemed ridiculous – the pet project of a band of quite demented loyalists. The threshold of 100 MP nominations to qualify for the ballot seemed sure to exclude a man who, only a few months ago, was forced out after so many people resigned from his government that he could barely staff it.
And yet, those endorsements are ticking up. Ben Wallace, who has turned into the Prester John of Tory moderates, has declared for Boris, sticking to his apparent strategy of backing the apparent winner so he can keep being Defence Secretary. Ben Houchen, who as mayor is on the way to making Tees Valley a personal fiefdom, has also endorsed him.
This is an extraordinary turnaround. The man hasn’t been out of office for yet 50 days, and a substantial chunk of the parliamentary Conservative Party is going to attempt to persuade the nation that he’s fully rehabilitated. Why?
It’s probably pretty much the same forces that drove them to select him in 2019: the polls are in a Satanic state, and (they believe) only Johnson’s extraordinary powers as a campaigner can salvage the Tory position. It must be he, they think, rather than the slick Rishi Sunak, who can rebuild trust with the Red Wall.
Moreover, if one wishes to avoid a general election – and if you’re a Conservative MP right now, you wish to avoid one very much indeed – the easiest way to fall back on the electoral mandate of 2019 is to reinstate the man who won it.
What this reasoning seems to forget is where we were at the dog-end of the Johnson ministry. His polling wasn’t as bad as Liz Truss’s – not a very high bar to clear – but it was extremely poor, and for a reason. Scandals that left the front pages when he departed for the back benches would likely return with him; a House of Commons investigation into whether he misled parliament is still ongoing.
But even beyond that, it is not at all obvious that Johnson is the man for the very challenging times the next government will find itself in. His tragic flaw is that despite being adept at winning power, he shows no great enthusiasm for using it, especially when doing so would involve someone, somewhere, disliking him.
Like it or not, the next prime minister must be prepared to be disliked, for their first major task is going to be getting a painful package of spending cuts or tax rises – the price Jeremy Hunt paid for calming the markets – through the House of Commons.
Voters are going to hate it. Tory MPs, elected on that spend-y manifesto in 2019, are going to hate it. Johnson is going to hate it. But if he dithers, then the markets – which are watching what happens extremely closely – are going to respond.
Even if he does get through that, what then? The sheer awfulness of the Truss era, brief as it was, seems to have led many Conservatives to forget that the Johnson government was simply not very good. The big majority he won was not employed to do much of any consequence; parliament was clogged with trivial bills while the big projects, such as planning reform and airport expansion, fell by the wayside.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that for all that Johnson has a hardcore of supporters, there is on the other side another group of MPs who have more or less stated that he is unfit for office. Some are intractable opponents from the Brexit forever wars, but others are people he chose to serve in his government who in the end felt they had no choice but to walk out.
A Johnson restoration puts them in a deeply invidious position. I don’t suppose there would be many takers for David Gauke’s idea of collaborating with Labour to force an election. But there would likely be more than enough to deprive Johnson of his Commons majority, especially if and when the economy started to go south.
And that’s really the ur-problem for the Tories. On paper, they have a majority. They can probably cohere around avoiding an election. But the parliamentary party is now so divided that it’s hard to see a solid majority for any coherent programme of action, except for spending money which, thanks in large part to Truss, they no longer have.
Perhaps in the end, Johnson will end up wishing he’d remained the world king over the water. It might prove a happier ending to his story than returning for his Waterloo.