January 28, 2023

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Will Boris Johnson come back?

7 min read
Will Boris Johnson come back?

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Good morning. Shortly after the 2017 general election, I took one of the Conservative party’s most committed Remainers out to lunch. Inevitably, we discussed the threat against Theresa May’s leadership and who might replace her. What about Boris Johnson, I asked.

“Oh no,” they replied, “then you really would get people leaving and a new party of the centre forming. I would join it myself!”

That MP ended up in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, in part because of the Conservatives’ catastrophically bad performance in the 2019 local and European elections.

This is, by way of saying, in response to the question so many of you are asking: of course Boris Johnson might become prime minister again, if enough MPs are desperate enough to put aside their concerns about him. Some thoughts on that and more in today’s note.


Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com.


Grab your Johnson

The end of, in Jim Pickard’s delightful phrase, Liz Truss’s “mayfly premiership” means that we will have a mayfly leadership election: a lightning-fast process designed to produce a new prime minister as quickly as possible. (Here is how our live coverage of the events unfolded).

To even make the first ballot, candidates require 100 nominations. At most, three candidates will be able to make it that far (there are only 357 Conservative MP backers up for grabs).

Assuming that three do, there will be a subsequent vote among MPs on Monday afternoon to winnow the field down to two. Then, there will be an “indicative” vote later that day to establish which of the remaining candidates is the preferred choice of the parliamentary party.

Once that final vote is cast, you can bet whichever candidate comes second will face an awful lot of pressure to just drop out — but if they don’t, there will be a very quick online ballot of Tory party members, which will close at 11am on October 28.

The two magic numbers for any candidate are 100 — that’s the bare minimum required to enter the contest, and 120 — because if you get 120 MPs, you have a third of the parliamentary party and there is no way that your opponents can vote tactically to shut you out of the top two.

In some ways, all this process does is move some of the horse-trading that takes place in semi-public during the early rounds of the contest out of public view. The reason why Rishi Sunak only got 88 votes in the first round of this summer’s leadership contest, and Truss only 50, is that for different reasons, the party’s left and right harboured doubts about both of them and preferred to flirt with the likes of Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Grant Shapps, Nadhim Zahawi, Jeremy Hunt, etc etc.

The private pitch to supporters of Braverman and Badenoch from Truss’s campaign was always “look, come on, you can have your fun with these people, but be realistic: only one candidate from the right is making it to the final two, and it’s Truss”. Now, instead of that pitch being made after those candidates had finished last in the ballot, it is being made before anyone has actually reached the contest proper.

One candidate is essentially guaranteed to clear both the 100 mark and the 120 one: Rishi Sunak. Although Sunak took all five ballots to get past 120 in July, a lot of Conservative MPs now regret not supporting him (many of them regret it so much they have convinced themselves they in fact backed him all along) and he won’t struggle to hit that mark this time around.

Sunak is drawing support from several different places: committed fiscal hawks who share his view of the world and backed him last time, MPs who have been spooked by the market reaction to Trussonomics and think they backed him last time, MPs who want to save their seats and believe he is their best option, and MPs on the party’s left who eventually settled for Sunak last time and who have been forced to hurry it up thanks to the rules of this leadership ballot.

That leaves two candidates with a good chance of clearing the threshold as well. A tally of MPs’ support for the potential contenders – by Sky News – was putting Sunak at 42, Boris Johnson at 38 and Mordaunt at 16. Johnson is drawing support from the party’s right, from MPs who want to retain their seats and think he is the best option, and from MPs who think that when all is said and done, Johnson will get 100 MPs to back him, will make the final ballot of members and will win it, so they might as well get on the Johnson train rather than be under it. While there is a caucus of Conservative MPs who bitterly dislike the idea of another term for Boris Johnson, there are definitely 100 MPs who are either desperate enough or committed enough to Johnson for that not to matter.

It’s Penny Mordaunt who I think will struggle. Last time she did well by essentially running on a ticket of “look, forget the questions you might have about my politics, I’m visibly the most charismatic politician in the race and if anyone in this race is going to keep your seat safe, it’s me”. She pulled over the support of rightwingers who, to put it bluntly, thought that Truss and Braverman were a bit too weird-looking to win an election, and leftwingers who thought that Sunak wasn’t really one of them.

It’s hard for her to thrive in a contest with Johnson eating into her “look, I’m a winner” pitch, particularly on the right. Meanwhile, on the left, many MPs have buried their doubts about Sunak, potentially further cramping Mordaunt’s pool of support.

Now, of course, it’s true to say that Boris Johnson’s popularity among voters has declined pretty significantly since the 2019 general election, when he was in any case much less popular than he was when he was winning London mayoral elections in 2008 and 2012.

But for a sizeable chunk of Conservatives, “Boris Johnson is a winner” is one of those things Everybody Knows. It’s like telling someone that housing is a safe investment class, or that the UK is a stable and functioning democracy: something that is true until it suddenly isn’t.

Nonetheless, enough Conservatives believe it and given how bad the polls are (the latest update from People Polling puts support for the Tories at its lowest since modern polling began), that may well be enough for Boris Johnson to turn his chance of making the ballot into a return to Downing Street.

Now try this

I went to the Alexandra Palace to see Franz Ferdinand: one of my favourite bands but more importantly one of the best live performers around. If you have an opportunity to see them live, you should, even if you (wrongly) aren’t particularly excited by Franz Ferdinand’s music. It was pleasing to hear the 2013 album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, which is not only particularly good live but also has a special place in my heart. The first gig my partner and I went to together was the tour for that album.

As I write, however, I am listening to Arctic Monkeys’ new record The Car. Ludovic Hunter-Tilney’s review is here, and it’s very good (the review and the album, though Ludovic’s dislike of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino continues to be a source of pain and upset to me). I think Sculptures of Anything Goes is the standout track though it’s all very, very good.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.

Top stories today

  • Meetings with Hunt are like a ‘health spa’ | The chancellor pressed on yesterday with preparations to unveil a crucial fiscal statement — which aims to fill a £40bn hole in the UK public finances — on October 31, in spite of Liz Truss’s resignation. Many Tory MPs, including Hunt’s critics, believe he will remain chancellor under any new prime minister.

  • Lettuce, tossed | Henry Mance chronicles the rise and fall of Liz Truss, from the early warning signs of her “dismissive attitude towards expertise” as foreign secretary, to the final, humiliating days of her premiership.

  • ‘Deeply disturbing’ | The independent inquiry into child sex abuse found “epidemic” levels of past cruelty in England and Wales and warned of a current escalation in online abuse, in its report issued yesterday following a seven-year investigation.

  • Dangerous game | A Russian fighter plane released a missile near an unarmed British spy plane patrolling international air space over the Black Sea on September 29, UK defence minister Ben Wallace said, in an incident that Russia later blamed on a “technical malfunction”.

  • ScottishPower calls for an energy company-backed fund | One of Britain’s biggest utilities has said all energy companies, including oil and gas producers, should pay into a multibillion-pound fund to subsidise electricity and gas bills from April, when blanket UK government support ends.

  • FT: Time for GE | The Financial Times’ editorial board does not hold back in its leader, “The shattering of the UK’s credibility”. The article sets out why the British people, not MPs or the 170,000 members of the Conservative party, must choose their political future.

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