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Boris Johnson's comeback will reignite the Tory wars

The former British prime minister has been building support for a possible return to power, just hours after Truss ended her calamitous reign
Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street, on 13 July 2022 (AFP)

Boris Johnson is back. The disgraced former British prime minister is reportedly breaking into his family holiday in the Dominican Republic and returning to Britain this weekend to stage an improbable comeback.

Johnson, forced out of office in disgrace three months ago, can already count on the support of at least 40 Tory MPs, including several cabinet ministers.

Johnson's attempt to reclaim the premiership opens the way for a brutal battle over the coming weeks for the soul of the Tory party

Big Tory donors are behind Johnson’s campaign, led by former Conservative Party chairman and treasurer Ben Elliot. They can count on the support of outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss’s former strategist, David Canzini. A “Back Boris” WhatsApp campaign is under way. Crucially, Johnson is likely to be supported by much of the Conservative media, led by the Daily Mail.

If all goes according to plan, Johnson will be back in Downing Street for a second term of office next Friday. 

This may sound like insanity to followers of British politics, who recall that Johnson was sacked as prime minister just three months ago after a Tory party revolt over his handling of a series of political scandals.

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But some Tory MPs, and many party members, see Johnson as a proven vote winner, and believe that the decision to drive him out of Downing Street was a terrible error that they are determined to reverse.

Whatever the result, Johnson’s attempt to reclaim the premiership opens the way for a brutal battle over the coming weeks for the soul of the Tory party. 

Game-changing moment

The right wing saw the defenestration of their favourite, Truss, as a body blow, and are determined to use Johnson to win back power. The traditional wing of the Tories want to stop him at all costs, and take the party back to what they see as the centre ground under Rishi Sunak.

The opportunity for a Johnson comeback arrived when Truss resigned on Thursday, opening a vacancy for the Tory leadership and the premiership.

At first, Johnson’s chances seemed remote. Most observers expected the 1922 Committee, which sets the rules for Tory leadership elections, to confine the voting to MPs only. This would have been bad news for Johnson, who is disliked by many Tory MPs, a large number of whom rebelled against his premiership in disgust at his dishonesty.

Then, in a game-changing moment, 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady announced on Thursday that Tory members would be given the final say in the decision. 

A copy of The Sun featuring Johnson is seen in London on 21 October 2022 (AFP)
British tabloid The Sun features Johnson on its front cover, on 21 October 2022 (AFP)

This was a momentous development, because Johnson remains highly popular among the Tory rank and file, meaning that he is likely to triumph in any contest decided by the membership.

Johnson still faces one formidable obstacle in his battle to return to Downing Street. To speed up the leadership contest, the new rules announced by the 1922 Committee state that any contender must achieve the backing of 100 MPs to make it through to the second round. With many MPs hostile, this presents a serious problem for Johnson. 

But it is a problem he may surmount. According to the latest calculations, more than 40 MPs - including, significantly, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg - have publicly stated or hinted they will support Johnson.

By contrast, more than 70 are reported to back his main rival, Sunak, while more than 20 support a third candidate, Penny Mordaunt. But these are early days, and only a relatively small minority of the 357 Tory MPs have yet displayed their hand. In the end, only two candidates for the leadership can go through to the final membership vote - and only so long as they get the necessary minimum 100 votes.

A monster reanimated

The re-emergence of Johnson from his political deathbed is an unexpected setback to Conservatives who believed that the destruction of the Truss premiership would mark a body blow to those they see as right-wing Brexiteers, who took over the party after Theresa May resigned in 2019. 

For them, the return of Johnson bears comparison to the traditional final sequence in a horror film, when the hero, having apparently defeated the monster, suddenly finds that it has come back to life, and they must grapple with it all over again.

Liz Truss is finished. And so are the Tories
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Johnson faces another serious problem. He is already under investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee for making misleading statements to parliament about Downing Street parties during the Covid-19 lockdown. If found guilty of misleading parliament, the committee has the power to suspend Johnson, potentially triggering a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

Some mainstream Conservative MPs are privately threatening to resign the party whip if Johnson returns to Downing Street. Middle East Eye on Friday approached Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment as chancellor last week went far towards restoring confidence in financial markets, to ask whether he would serve under a Johnson premiership, but he did not immediately respond.

Sunak, Johnson’s likely main rival in the forthcoming Tory leadership contest, precipitated Johnson’s downfall when he resigned as chancellor of the Exchequer in July, setting off a wave of copycat resignations. Sunak has not indicated whether he would return to power under a new Johnson premiership.

It looks, however, beyond doubt that the return of Johnson will reignite the Tory wars, which appeared to have been settled by the departure of Truss 24 hours ago.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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