How Tories shunned Boris Johnson's pitch to be election saviour

Few MPs in vulnerable seats came out in support of a Johnson comeback

Boris Johnson has called off his bid to return to Downing Street just weeks after his resignation. AFP
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Boris Johnson called off his comeback after failing to persuade vulnerable Conservative MPs that he could save them at the next general election.

At the heart of Mr Johnson’s case to colleagues was the belief that only he could rescue the Tories from their dire standing in the polls.

But data compiled by The National shows MPs with fragile majorities did not embrace Mr Johnson’s argument.

Lacking enough support to govern, Mr Johnson announced late on Sunday that he would not seek to replace Liz Truss as Prime Minister.

“I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said.

Of 34 Conservative MPs with a majority below 5 per cent, only four came out in support of a Johnson comeback.

Those MPs would be almost certain to lose their seats if the Labour Party wins the next election, expected in 2024.

Many of them turned their backs on Mr Johnson despite owing their seats to his landslide general election victory in 2019.

James Daly, who won his Bury North seat by just 105 votes at the last election, was among at least 15 vulnerable MPs who favoured Rishi Sunak.

“This is not a game. This is about people’s lives, and that’s why I’m backing Rishi Sunak,” said Mr Daly, the most vulnerable Conservative MP in the country.

“We cannot risk bringing chaos and confusion at a time of economic crisis.”

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Although Mr Johnson had support from barely 10 per cent of the most vulnerable MPs, he claimed that almost 30 per cent of all Tory MPs were willing to back him.

But he said it would be impossible to govern with Tory MPs so divided.

Richard Holden, defending a majority of 1,144 votes in North-West Durham, spurned Mr Johnson after working on his leadership campaign in 2019.

“It isn’t his moment and he’s made the right call,” he said, after Mr Johnson called off his comeback.

Anthony Browne, who defeated the Liberal Democrats by 2,904 votes in South Cambridgeshire, said Britain needed “someone with economic credibility, who is popular with voters, and who hasn’t already been forced to resign as PM”.

At least four MPs in the 34 most marginal seats supported rival candidate Penny Mordaunt, but she was trailing Mr Sunak in total nominations.

The most vulnerable Conservative MP to back Mr Johnson was Ian Levy, whose victory by 712 votes in Blyth Valley was symbolic of the Tories’ success in former Labour heartlands in 2019.

Mr Johnson was the most popular choice in emails and messages he received from his constituents, Mr Levy said.

Other MPs with small majorities kept their preferences to themselves, or endorsed Mr Sunak only after Mr Johnson was out of the picture.

Mr Johnson said he was tempted by a comeback “because I led our party into a massive election victory less than three years ago — and I believe I am therefore uniquely placed to avert a general election now”.

Allies said Mr Johnson’s charisma and campaigning skills meant he was the man Labour would most fear.

“Boris is a winner,” was the refrain of one Johnson loyalist, Scott Benton.

Polls gave a mixed verdict on whether this was true. The Sunak camp seized on one survey showing 45 per cent of the public would prefer Mr Sunak as prime minister, compared to 27 per cent for Mr Johnson.

But another poll showed Labour leading the Tories by only 10 points if Mr Johnson were back in Downing Street, compared to 17 points if it faced Mr Sunak.

Labour has built up vast poll leads not seen since the 1990s, after the bungled mini-budget that unleashed economic chaos and led to the downfall of Ms Truss.

The next election is not expected until 2024 and could theoretically be as late as January 2025, but Labour is calling for an early vote.

Johnson supporters said a comeback would have neutralised Labour’s argument because he would have resumed his mandate from 2019.

Supporters of Mr Sunak said voters would want stability and honesty after the chaos of the past few years.

He promised in his only public remarks since Ms Truss resigned that there would be “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead”.

Mr Johnson’s credibility was again in question after he claimed to have 102 supporters when the tally of public backers was considerably lower.

“If he had 102 he’d have run and won,” said Labour MP Andrew Gwynne.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 10:09 AM