Just over six weeks after Boris Johnson was turfed out of power in disgrace by his own party, Britain’s widely reviled former leader is being tipped as a frontrunner to become the next prime minister, prompting widespread outrage and disbelief.
Johnson, pilloried by his critics when he was ousted as the worst British prime minister in history – although, admittedly, this was before Liz Truss crashed the UK economy during her catastrophic 45 days in power – is being tipped as one of the leading candidates in the race to replace Truss, who resigned on Thursday.
Johnson, who, true to his brand, was reported to be flying back from a holiday in the Caribbean on Friday morning, is yet to officially announce his candidacy. But in his absence, his backers were already publicly declaring their support for his campaign.
“#BorisOrBust,” tweeted one of his key allies, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government’s business secretary tweeted on Friday. Conservative MPs who want to run for the leadership of the party, and in doing so become Prime Minister, have until Monday to officially throw their hat into the ring; so far, MPs have been publicly declaring support for Johnson; Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor who was instrumental in ousting Johnson earlier this year; and Penny Mordaunt.
Unofficial projections suggest Sunak and Johnson are early frontrunners, with Mordaunt trailing, while some MPs have speculated that the history of bad blood between the former two politicians could help Mordaunt’s prospects as a “unity” candidate.
While Johnson’s ride-or-die supporters like Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, have steadfastly insisted that only he has the mandate from voters to lead, on the basis of the Conservatives’ crushing victory in the 2019 elections, others were in disbelief that he could be considering a return.
“No Boris Johnson no no no no no NO! Under absolutely no circumstances. Ever. Ever ever ever, d’you hear?” tweeted British writer and entertainer Stephen Fry.
Broadcaster Emily Maitlis, on hearing reports that Johnson was standing, was more succinct. “OK. Shit,” she said on the News Agents podcast.
Meanwhile, the opposition Lib Dems tabled a motion in Parliament that would block Johnson from being able to lead the country again, by banning politicians who had broken the law in office – Johnson, along with his wife, Carrie Johnson, and Sunak, were fined by police for attending the prime minister’s birthday party in a government office while the country was in lockdown – from the role. Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said Johnson was not fit to govern.
While the prospect of Johnson’s return horrified many, it wasn’t completely unexpected.
In his farewell address in early September, Johnson made one of his customary Classical references which some onlookers read as suggesting he foresaw a return to power.
“Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough,” said Johnson referring to a Roman dictator who led the battle against an invading army before returning to his quiet life on his farm – only to later return for a second term in power.
The current leadership contest will play out much more quickly than the recent one, which was extended by parliament’s summer recess period, and was held with a far lower threshold for entry. But the process is still complex.
Candidates this time around will require nominations from at least 100 fellow Conservative MPs to enter the contest – whereas last time around they needed only 20. With 357 Conservative MPs, that means three candidates at most will be able to enter the race.
If only one candidate has reached the 100 nomination threshold by Monday, they will automatically become the new prime minister. But if more than one gets 100 nominations, a ballot will be held among MPs on Monday afternoon. If there are three in the race, the candidate with the lowest support in the vote will be knocked out.
An indicative ballot will then be held to demonstrate the support among MPs for the two final candidates. If no one withdraws, the decision will then pass from politicians to paid-up members of the Conservative party, who will select the new prime minister through an online vote, with the winner to be announced on October the 28th.