A week is a long time for the Tories as Boris Johnson rides back into view

Conservatives will struggle to find unity candidate after Truss's resignation

FILE PHOTO: Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech on his last day in office, outside Downing Street, in London, Britain September 6, 2022.  REUTERS / Toby Melville / File Photo
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

This time last week I thought the Tories were in with a chance of winning the next election. In theory, it is not until 2024 and if they moved quickly to replace Liz Truss with a Rishi Sunak-Penny Mordaunt ticket and restore economic stability and certainty, they could pull it off.

But a week is a long time in politics, at least where the Conservatives and Liz Truss are concerned. Since then, we’ve had resignations and would-be resignations of Cabinet ministers, key policy U-turns, a revolt of backbench MPs, among them some of the biggest names in the party, and of course, the departure of Ms Truss herself.

It’s been a whirlwind seven days of utter chaos which has only served to highlight again the deep fractures in the ruling party. Now, as I write this, they are scrambling around to find a “unity” candidate to replace Truss.

But they’ve been searching for this mythical figure for a while – ever since Truss became leader, doubts soon set in and it became apparent a successor might have to be lined up. Their quest goes back further, however, to the leadership election. Then, nobody emerged, and the party and country were forced to endure a marathon, head-to-head between Truss and Sunak.

The vote was tight, showing how much the Tories were split. Arguably the schism has been there all along, between Remainers and Brexiteers, left and right. John Major, Theresa May, David Cameron, they certainly experienced it. Boris Johnson was able to brush it aside, such was the force of his personality.

Sunak could try again, but he did not win in the summer and he remains a Marmite character – unlikely to be forgiven by Mr Johnson’s supporters for, as they saw it, plunging the dagger into his premiership by resigning. Yes, he carries bags of credit as the “I told you so” candidate, for rightly predicting Ms Truss’s tax cuts would be disastrous.

Mordaunt might be that single saviour, but after the week we’ve just had, it’s hard to imagine the party is ready to accept another leader who is untried, untested at senior level – someone too who was voted down in the earlier stages of the recent contest.

It’s been a whirlwind seven days of utter chaos which has only served to highlight again the deep fractures in the ruling party.

In some snap polling of the party faithful and the very people who get to choose, Sunak is ranking third behind Mordaunt. Top for them is Johnson.

Johnson allowed his name to be circulated as a contender on Thursday and in the hours ahead the pressure for him to do so will only grow. Cometh the hour, and all that.

For Johnson, of course, a return would be vindication - he has spent these past months bitter and furious at being made to stand down - and it would mirror his great hero, Sir Winston Churchill, who also made a comeback.

There is, though, a crucial difference between Churchill’s first going and Johnson’s. The war leader was voted out by the country. Cruelly, possibly, but the conflict was over and Britain was craving change. Churchill as well was not beset by scandal.

Johnson went after dozens of his ministers quit, leaving him isolated. They did so after a slew of negativity concerning Johnson’s personal integrity. If he was to re-enter No 10, he would so while a Parliamentary committee is examining whether he misled the Commons as prime minister, an offence for which if found guilty, he would be expected to resign.

The candidates vying to replace Liz Truss - in pictures

But this is Johnson and he has previously ridden out damning verdicts that would finish others. His supporters in the press and Parliament would do their level best - they’ve begun – to belittle the committee and question its legality.

So, if Johnson rides back, what then? Doubtless we would be treated to the sorrowful Boris, the one who promises to reform his ways. Would it be enough, would he really alter? Whoever wins, for a start, must reach out to the EU and patch up differences – even many Brexiteers recognise there needs to be moves towards rapprochement, for the good of the economy. Is Johnson capable of that?

What the party would like is a re-run of the Johnson-Sunak show, but it’s doubtful either man would accept that - too much animosity has flowed between them.

What’s missing from all this is the view of the nation. What we’ve been treated to so far is internecine warfare within a narrow constituency – the Tories’ 357 MPs and 150,000 members.

The Tories may decide that after everything that has occurred, they’ve got nothing to lose, Johnson is the one person who can weld them together. In theory, there are still two years to go, although the demands for an early general election will intensify. They know, too, that despite his lead in the polls, the electorate has never warmed to Sir Keir Starmer.

Johnson couldn’t, could he? Weirdly, across the Atlantic, the Americans are asking the same of a former President. Johnson and Trump. They could, you know. They really could.

Published: October 20, 2022, 5:09 PM