This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph
Ever since the day of Boris Johnson’s departure from Number 10 last July, Westminster watchers have been speculating about his return. It’s almost become a ritual parlour game among some Tory MPs. He nearly had a go at rising like a phoenix from his own political ashes when Liz Truss fell on her sword, but eventually realised that it was too soon. Three months on, the political landscape is changing. The parliamentary party – or at least parts of it – are becoming restless again.
When Rishi Sunak entered No10, many felt the adults were back in the room. Politics was returning to normal. Drama was a word they thought consigned to the past. At least Sunak had a plan, they thought. Now, however, they are doubting the existence of any such plan, let alone a vision. They see a PM embattled by dealing with a series of scandals and an economy that remains sluggish. Those who thought that things could be turned around by the autumn of next year are doubting their own confidence. They have been knocked sideways by the decision by AstraZeneca to locate their new factory in Ireland, as a direct result of the imminent rise in Corporation Tax this side of the Irish sea. And they fear AstraZeneca won’t be the last.
They also see a PM with a touch of Gordon Brown about him – a micro manager who inevitably keeps having to defer decisions. Secretaries of State are said to feel like junior ministers, unable to take any decision without reference to No10 first.
Heads have also been left scratching about last week’s reshuffle. What was the point of it? No 10 sources are telling anyone who will listen that they expect to have to shuffle the decks again in a few weeks, given they are less than confident about the result of the inquiry into Dominic Raab. Plus there will have to be some sort of reset after the local elections. So why now?
The creation of four new departments is also sowing utter confusion in the Tory ranks, not to mention the curious appointment of Lee Anderson as deputy chairman of the party. In this context, there are many Tory MPs who are considering the post bloodbath future, because that’s what it will be – a bloodbath. It is doubtful whether any leader could rescue the Tories from this. Yes, it’s undoubtedly unfair to judge a PM’s election-winning capabilities after only six months, but when did fairness ever play a part in political calculation?
Fairness may not play a part, but panic does. And that’s what Johnson is undoubtedly counting on.
He has hardly put a foot wrong since he pulled out of the last leadership contest at the last minute. He’s restricted his public comments to a minimum and has done little to undermine Sunak overtly, despite muttering to anyone who will listen privately. He hopes that if it all goes wrong for Sunak, he will be seen as all fired up to pick up the pieces. And who’s to say he’s wrong? If Sunak is toppled, it’s difficult to see any members of the cabinet being able to gather the necessary support or project the electoral appeal to beat him. Several Tory MPs in Labour facing seats have told me this weekend that on the doorstep there are growing numbers of people who insist they will only vote Tory if Boris is leading them.
However much the salons of Islington and Camden don’t understand Johnson’s appeal, there is little doubt in my mind that if MPs think mitigating the scale of defeat at the next election is the priority, then replacing Sunak with Johnson has a logic to it, even if long term they would rue the day. In addition, there’s the inconvenience of the Select Committee inquiry into Johnson’s truth-telling (or otherwise) over what he knew about Partygate and when he knew it. That could still scupper everything.
I do not advocate the return of Boris. I do not want it. In some ways I think he would be mad to come back and the Tory Party would be even madder to facilitate it, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there is a real pathway to it happening.