Boris Johnson arrives in UK for political comeback attempt but Rishi Sunak ahead

Critics say former British prime minister's return could send Conservative Party into a 'death spiral'

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Gatwick Airport. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Former prime minister Boris Johnson flew back to the UK on Saturday as he appeared ready to attempt a sensational political comeback.

Mr Johnson was spotted on board a British Airways flight as he cut short a holiday in the Dominican Republic with his family.

Reports suggest that he received several boos as he boarded the plane, which later landed in Gatwick Airport at about 10am local time.

He has not formally put his name forward for the latest leadership race following the resignation of Liz Truss, but it is believed he will be one of three MPs vying to become prime minister.

Supporters say he is the man to save the Conservatives, for whom popular support has plummeted, but critics say he could send the party into a “death spiral”.

In the contest to succeed Ms Truss, only Penny Mordaunt has officially entered, but Rishi Sunak, who came second in the race to replace Mr Johnson, and the former prime minister himself have been gathering supporters.

Mr Johnson was forced out after a series of scandals and resignations from his Cabinet and Ms Truss won the subsequent leadership contest. But after only 45 days in office, she resigned — largely because her mini-budget sparked a financial meltdown.

Now Mr Johnson could make a historic return.

Under the rules of the new contest, candidates need to have the support of at least 100 of the party’s 357 MPs. If three meet the threshold, then a vote of MPs will cut one and party members will pick a winner from the final two.

One ally, Trade Minister Sir James Duddridge said: “He's going to fly back. He said, 'I'm flying back, Dudders. We are going to do this. I'm up for it'.”

According to public statements by MPs, Mr Sunak has 87 supporters, Mr Johnson 47 and Ms Mordaunt 19.

Mr Sunak, however, believes that after private commitments, he has more than 100 supporters — the first to hit the threshold. Mr Johnson’s supporters have him at 68 unofficial supporters.

Robbie Moore, a Tory MP backing Ms Mordaunt, said he was “incredibly confident” she will get the 100 MP nominations needed to reach the members' voting stage.

“What we need now is a candidate more than ever that is able to unite the Conservative Parliamentary Party, able to unite our membership,” he said.

“I think Penny is the right person to take not just the Conservative Party forward but our nation forward.”

Sir James said Mr Johnson will argue he is “the only person that's got a mandate” from the 2019 general election and that he can “bring the party together”.

But former leader Lord William Hague said Mr Johnson's resurrection would lead to a “death spiral” for the party.

Lord Hague, a Tory peer, said Mr Johnson returning is “possibly the worst idea I've heard of” during his 46-year party membership.

“I think it'd be a very, very bad idea to bring Boris Johnson back,” he said.

“This all started, this unravelling, because Boris Johnson was unable to run the government in the right way, to keep it together in the right way, to uphold the high standards of conduct that are necessary in the highest offices in the land.”

A return for Mr Johnson would be beset with challenges, not least the inquiry into whether he lied to the Commons over the partygate scandal, for which he was fined by police.

If found guilty by the Commons Privileges Committee, he could face recall proceedings that would leave him battling for his seat in the Commons if he receives a suspension of 10 days or more.

Updated: October 22, 2022, 11:46 AM