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Is Boris Johnson staging a political comeback?

Even as the Tories prepare to select a new leader, big money and media have started mobilising to save the disgraced prime minister
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on 13 July 2022 (AFP)

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was pushed out of office in disgrace by his fellow MPs two weeks ago, many - myself included - assumed that was the end of him.

We expected that after leaving Downing Street, he would resume his lucrative duties as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, complete his book on Shakespeare and make a fortune speaking on the US lecture circuit. We assumed that with Johnson exposed as a serial liar, fabricator and cheat, his career in politics was over.

We should now reconsider that view. There is serious evidence that Johnson is pondering a comeback - and some reason to think he may succeed. 

Johnson himself is playing along with the idea of a Lazarus-like resurrection

Consider the known facts. Firstly, allies of Johnson are actively preparing a “stab in the back” myth. The day after Johnson’s defenestration, the front page of the Daily Mail asked the question: “What the hell have they done?” For good measure, it blamed a Tory party “in the grip of collective hysteria” for forcing a needless leadership election.

Secondly, big money has started to mobilise behind the former leader. Super-rich businessman Lord Cruddas, given his peerage by Johnson, has flung his weight behind the prime minister and defied satire by declaring: “The ousting of Boris Johnson as prime minister by a minority of MPs is deeply anti-democratic … [and] amounts to a coup.” 

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Thirdly, parts of the Tory media machine are mobilising. Within a week of Johnson’s announcement that he would step down as Tory leader, the Daily Telegraph had mobilised behind a campaign to save him by giving Tory members a vote on his departure. So far, 10,000 members have signed a petition to add Johnson’s name to the ballot of the leadership race. 

Johnson 'wants to fight'

Last but not least, Johnson himself is playing along with the idea of a Lazarus-like resurrection. On Monday night, Christopher Hope, the well-connected Daily Telegraph journalist who has led coverage of the Tory membership revolt, reported details of a lunch between Johnson and Cruddas at the prime minister’s Chequers country retreat. 

According to Cruddas, a former Tory treasurer, Johnson “does not want to resign”, but rather “wants to fight the next general election as leader of the party”. Cruddas told the Telegraph that the pair had discussed a “Bring Back Boris” campaign that would give Conservative Party activists a chance to deliver their verdict on the prime minister’s removal.

The paper quoted a “senior Conservative source” dismissing the idea. But Cruddas said: “There was no ambiguity in Boris’s views. He definitely does not want to resign. He wants to carry on and he believes that, with the membership behind him, he can.”

British national newspapers detail Johnson’s fall in central London on 8 July 2022 (AFP)
British national newspapers detail Johnson’s fall in central London on 8 July 2022 (AFP)

Until now, virtually all well-informed opinion had dismissed the idea of a Johnson comeback - and I have to confess that at first, I was strongly inclined to agree. Indeed, it is still impossible to see a way for Johnson to make his way onto the membership ballot.

But let’s look a little further ahead and contemplate the following scenario. Over the coming weeks, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, the final two candidates for the leadership, fight lacklustre campaigns and fail to excite the estimated 160,000 Tory members. One or the other of them (at present, Truss is the favourite) struggle through to victory, but a growing number of activists feel resentful against Tory MPs for getting rid of Johnson.

Conservative dilemma

Then comes the Conservative Party conference set for Birmingham this October. Theoretically, this is the moment when a new leader should be greeted with rapturous acclamation by the Tory faithful. 

In practice, the new leader’s speech falls flat as Johnson steals the show. To the horror of the new leadership, he turns up - as he is entitled to do as a Tory MP and former leader - at the conference. Arriving at Birmingham’s New Street station, he is at once mobbed by an adoring crowd, which follows him throughout his time in Birmingham.

The Conservative organisers are confronted with an agonising dilemma. Do they allow him to speak at the official conference event, where they know he will receive a hero’s welcome that will put the official leadership in the shade? Or do they refuse him permission - in which case, Johnson supporters threaten to book the biggest possible arena in Birmingham and upstage the conference proper?

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Either way, Johnson dominates. There’s no bounce for the new Tory leader, who fails to make an impression as Labour leader Keir Starmer surges further ahead in the polls.

Next year’s local elections in May are a disaster for the Tories, and a wipeout at the looming general election looks inevitable. The “Bring Back Boris” campaign gets going in earnest.

Big donor money starts to mobilise behind him - just as it did during the pro-Johnson “Chuck Chequers” campaign that secured a hard Brexit and destroyed Theresa May three years ago. With unlimited cash available, the campaign makes expert use of social media accounts to create momentum and the impression of growing support.

The so-called “Red Wall” MPs, who owe their very presence at Westminster to Johnson’s alchemy in the 2019 general election, are among the first to openly call for his return.

The Trump precedent

The Daily Mail joins the Telegraph and demands the restoration of the lost leader to see off what it calls the “threat” of Starmer. Word seeps out that Johnson has had warm private meetings with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. With a thunderous series of front-page headlines, the Sun swings once again behind Johnson. 

The letters of no-confidence in the new Tory leader start to pile in, just as they did against Johnson over the spring. Johnson is back in power by Christmas 2023.

There are no British precedents for this. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, beloved by the membership, never sought a comeback after her political assassination at the hands of Conservative MPs in 1990. But Johnson is a populist and a demagogue who loves to smash rules and conventions. 

Don't rule out the return of Boris Johnson. Sadly, it's not the ridiculous idea it sounds

Other politicians are worried. You could see that during Monday night’s BBC debate, when Liz Truss told her TV audience that Tory MPs had been wrong to get rid of Johnson: “He made mistakes, but I didn’t think the mistakes he made were sufficient that the Conservative Party should have rejected him.”

This was a staggering remark from Britain’s likely next prime minister. She was telling a mass TV audience that Johnson’s proven lies, venality, cheating, law-breaking and criminality were not enough to make him unfit to be British prime minister. She’s afraid of him.

For precedent, it’s necessary to look abroad. Former US President Donald Trump, who tightened his grip on the Republican Party after losing the presidency, is one telling analogy. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who returned to power amid big-money media backing, despite a proven record of lies and corruption, is another. The rules have changed.

Nothing would dismay me more, or be more disastrous for Britain. But don’t rule out the return of Boris Johnson. Sadly, it’s not the ridiculous idea it sounds.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors 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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