Johnson has not made a comeback, yet. But the underdog may be biding his time.
It only seems like yesterday we were watching Boris Johnson begrudgingly tender his resignation on television outside Downing Street. It signalled what many believed was the end of the Johnson chapter of government, as a figure who had been so impactful in the last few years of British politics was relegated to the back benches.
In September, after a summer of debates and political mud-slinging, Liz Truss became the new prime minister. With 57% of the party membership vote, she promised to lower taxes, control rising energy bills, and promote growth. However, only 44 days later, Truss herself was outside Number 10, explaining how “given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected”.
So, Britain found itself looking for its next prime minister. Rishi Sunak- less than two months after his defeat in the last leadership contest- gained sufficient backing to become the country’s third prime minister since July. Sunak did not have to fight hard for his place at the top, with Penny Mourdant conceding after failing to meet the support threshold. Boris Johnson confirmed on Sunday evening that he would not run, but up until that point, pressure was growing within Westminster over the possibility of Johnson returning so soon. Although Mourdant was the only MP who publicly attempted to run against Sunak, it was assumed from early on that if the rumours about Johnson were true, the fight for the premiership would be a two-horse race. But, alas, this was not the moment for Boris Johnson’s return, and now people are either breathing a sigh of relief or licking their wounds at the news. However, it may be naive to believe that Johnson is finished with politics.
Despite the chaos of his premiership, Boris Johnson remains a popular figure among party members, and there is still an appetite for him to lead the party. A YouGov survey from the 18th October discovered that Johnson was the candidate that party members would most like to replace Liz Truss. 32% said they would support Johnson, compared to 23% for Sunak, and 10% backing defence security Ben Wallace. This probes an interesting question: what would have happened if Johnson had run this time? It is likely that Sunak would have had to fight harder to gain support, and the persisting rivalry between Johnson and Sunak could have split the party in half, with a bitter battle ensuing.
It seems to me that Johnson is biding his time, and has decided that the complex and difficult times we are living in right now is not the best moment to launch his rebrand. Seeing how Truss crashed and burned in her first few weeks demonstrates the extent of work that has to be done, and the challenges that the new Prime Minister faces. Despite his eccentric and bumbling public persona, Johnson is a shrewd politician, capable of making cunning decisions to reap rewards. Given the discontent and growing demand for a General Election from opposition parties and a large percentage of the public, government stability is holding on by a thread. Therefore, it is likely that Johnson has stepped back with the hope to re-emerge when things settle. The polls are not positive towards the Conservatives currently, with predictions showing that Labour would win a landslide if an election happened tomorrow, and that in terms of public perception, Johnson and Sunak would be equally as unpopular with the public.
If Johnson is to make a comeback, he will have to choose the right moment, and right now is not that moment. The memory of the Johnson era marred by scandal is still fresh, and seismic changes are going to have to be made to save Britain from further economic degradation. Johnson makes it clear himself that he is not done with politics, highlighting in his statement that “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time”. The trajectory of the Sunak premiership will influence in what capacity Johnson returns, but I do believe we cannot underestimate his political stamina and ambitions. Johnson has consistently proved the critics wrong, and I do not believe he is putting himself out to pasture just yet. In stepping back in the name of national unity and stability, he has given the impression that he is operating in the nation’s interest, whilst giving himself the opportunity to see how things play out from afar. Johnson’s hunger for power has not gone away, but it seems that he is not willing to risk it all when the current establishment seems to be a house of cards ready to crumble.