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Boris Johnson: ready to attempt a rapid political comeback

When Boris Johnson stepped down as prime minister last month, he likened himself to Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman who returned “to his plough” before being called back into politics.

But not even Johnson’s diehard supporters could believe that he would have the chance to become Conservative party leader and prime minister again so soon after being ousted following several scandals, including partygate.

Johnson was on holiday in the Dominican Republic this week when Liz Truss announced that she was resigning as Tory leader, prompting a quick-fire contest to succeed her. Johnson is due back in London on Saturday to decide whether to join the race to succeed her.

Although he has yet to formally declare he is standing, most of Johnson’s friends and allies think he will try to make one of the most remarkable comebacks in British politics — if he is convinced he can win the Tory crown. “He’ll find it hard to resist,” said one friend.

One person close to Johnson confirmed that he was considering a bid for the Tory leadership but added “no decisions have been taken”.

Johnson’s potential return to Downing Street raises questions about whether he could command a majority in the House of Commons because some Conservative MPs strongly oppose him. He is also under investigation as to whether he knowingly misled parliament about government parties during Covid-19 lockdowns — if he is found to have done so, he risks being ejected from office once again.

Several of Johnson’s allies have declared that they will support him replacing Truss, including business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, defence secretary Ben Wallace and levelling-up secretary Simon Clarke.

Johnson’s supporters hope he can rebuild the pro-Brexit coalition of voters he assembled to secure the Tories their largest Commons majority in three decades at the 2019 election.

This involved seizing seats off Labour in its so-called red wall in northern England and the Midlands. One Conservative MP who represents a red wall constituency said: “Boris is the only way I can hold on to my seat. If he comes back, I might have a chance of winning it again, that’s why I am backing him.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley who championed Johnson’s efforts to narrow regional inequalities through his levelling-up programme, endorsed him on Friday. “Teesside has had difficult times and is now starting to level up because of Boris,” said Houchen.

However, James Johnson, a pollster with JL Partners who worked in Downing Street when Theresa May was prime minister, described Johnson as a “toxic known [quantity]”, and highlighted research showing that he was now less popular in the red wall than elsewhere in the UK.

But, should Johnson become Tory leader again, his greatest challenge will be the Conservative parliamentary party, where his popularity was always less than among grassroots members.

To become a candidate, Johnson will need 100 Tory MPs to nominate him for the party leadership on Monday. Some MPs suggested that Johnson might struggle to secure 100 backers, but one of his supporters said: “Boris’s hardcore loyalist support was always about 70 MPs, so it shouldn’t be hard to get on to the ballot.”

Johnson’s supporters think he could beat any rival for the Conservative leadership in a run-off that would be decided by Tory members. “I have no doubt he would win comfortably. The grassroots had sellers’ remorse as soon as Boris was gone,” said one pro-Johnson MP.

But people close to Johnson’s rivals for the leadership — House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt announced that she was standing on Friday, and former chancellor Rishi Sunak is also expected to throw his hat in the ring — think that the former prime minister’s popularity has been undermined by scandals.

According to a survey by pollster YouGov, 34 per cent think Johnson would do a good job as prime minister, while 43 per cent take the same view of Sunak.

Some Tories fear that if Johnson faces Sunak in a run-off for the Tory leadership, it will tear the party apart. Several of Johnson’s allies accused Sunak of triggering the end of his premiership by resigning from the government in July.

“If it goes to Boris versus Rishi, the party will rip itself to shreds,” said one Johnson supporter. One Tory party insider said that Johnson was “open” to meeting with Sunak to see if a deal could be struck to avoid a run-off between them for the leadership.

Some Conservative MPs have gone public with their opposition to Johnson succeeding Truss. Jesse Norman, the Foreign Office minister, said: “Choosing Boris now would be — and I say this advisedly — an absolutely catastrophic decision.” One cabinet minister said it would be “total utter pure madness” for Johnson to return.

Some Tory MPs are threatening to resign from the party if Johnson wins the leadership. Sir Roger Gale, a veteran backbench MP, said he would stand as an independent at the next election. One party whip predicted that a Johnson government would have “no working majority” and could not pass legislation.

And if he does return to Downing Street, Johnson would be contending with a Commons privileges committee investigation into whether he misled MPs about the partygate scandal.

The committee’s investigation, which is due to conclude in the coming weeks, is said to be “damning”, according to MPs briefed on the probe. If Johnson is found to have knowingly misled parliament, he could be suspended from the Commons. Should that sanction last more than 10 days, it could ultimately trigger a parliamentary by-election in Johnson’s constituency.

But Johnson’s allies believe the threat is surmountable. “Parliament isn’t going to vote to suspend a sitting prime minister,” said one Conservative aide.

One former cabinet minister likened Johnson to Rasputin, as he predicted that Johnson could win the Tory leadership contest but then quickly be ousted again.

“It’s Boris, so the impossible could be possible,” he said. “But it’s highly likely that in January or February, we’ll be needing to choose another leader.”

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