‘An opportunist in search of an opportunity’: what next for Boris Johnson?
Under the vaulted blue roof of the old Westminster chapel, a short walk from Downing Street, Carrie Johnson strode confidently to the lectern. Behind the former prime minister’s wife sat a cross-party panel of senior politicians. Below her hovered a crowd stuffed with journalists and politicians, and beyond them a table laid with 123 neatly spaced yellow roses – one for every woman killed by a man the previous year. They were the favourite flowers of Joanna Simpson, a mother of two bludgeoned to death by her estranged husband, who is due to be freed from jail shortly. After meeting Joanna’s mother at a Buckingham Palace reception, Carrie had offered to help her mount a campaign to keep him behind bars.
Watching her deliver on that promise on that night in early March, it wasn’t hard to see Carrie Johnson reinventing herself successfully beyond Downing Street, perhaps as an unusually well-networked PR for the kind of causes that cross political divides. But it’s harder to say what will become of the man hovering at the back of the hall that night, desperate for once in his life not to be the centre of attention.
Steered through the crowd by his older sister Rachel, Boris Johnson seemed oddly ill at ease. Two days later, a clue emerged as to what might be preoccupying him: the House of Commons privileges committee, which is investigating whether he lied to parliament over rule-breaking in Whitehall during the pandemic, published a slew of private WhatsApp messages and written evidence from his own aides that will form the basis of its Partygate investigation.
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This week Johnson will finally testify publicly before that committee. Chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman but with a Tory majority, it will probe claims that he occasionally joined in “Friday night wine” sessions in the No 10 press office, and allegedly joked at one packed leaving do that it was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”. They’ll want to know why he told parliament in December 2021 that “all guidance was followed in No 10”, when seemingly rules were broken in front of him. Since most voters have probably already reached their own conclusions on whether Johnson is a liar, its verdict may not change many minds. But if found guilty, he could lose his seat.
And that’s just the first of three reckonings. In May, the biographer and honorary Downing Street historian Anthony Seldon will publish his book on Johnson’s time in No 10, employing his unusually extensive access to official sources to provide the first authoritative account weighing Johnson’s successes – that landslide majority, getting Brexit through parliament if not completed, galvanising support for Ukraine – against the scandals and failures. Finally, in June, the official inquiry into Britain’s handling of the pandemic will begin its public hearings. Most politicians would consider a comeback in this climate impossible. But Boris Johnson’s loyal supporters are already eyeing one final attempt in May, if the local elections go badly enough to set Tory MPs panicking.
If he walked away from politics tomorrow, Johnson would undoubtedly be better off. Having complained of being cash-strapped in Downing Street, he has registered outside earnings of more than £5m since leaving (around half of it for corporate speaking gigs, plus a six-figure deal for his memoirs). Adding a TV gig or newspaper column – he was recently seen lunching with Daily Mail editor Ted Verity, and has reportedly once again nominated the newspaper group’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, for a peerage – would give him an even bigger, better-paid public platform. But it seems he can’t quite let go. Privately he’s said to be feeling angry and betrayed over what he sees as his premature exit. “He just isn’t used to being rejected,” says a former staffer, who thinks he’s struggling to process all that has happened during the pandemic. “There’s a kind of madness in it, like he’s in denial. But then it’s hard to overstate how many extraordinary things have happened to him in the past few years – his mother died, he nearly died, his children started hating him [after his divorce from their mother Marina]…”
His friends, however, insist he simply has unfinished business in politics. “The Boris I know wants to have his legacy and his achievements on his terms, and the way he finished his time is not how he would want to end it,” says his former levelling up minister Lord Greenhalgh, who also worked for Johnson when he was London’s mayor and suggests his old boss still itches for some grand lasting project. “He does have an interventionist side to him, he does recognise the power of the state to make things happen. But he’s also a Thatcherite, he’s interested in how to lower taxes.” Greenhalgh is convinced Britain hasn’t seen the last of him. “I describe him as the Conservatives’ [Harold] Wilson: I think he will come back for a second term. I don’t know when. But I just think there’s still room.”
Boris Johnson seemingly thinks so too. He first attempted to regain the leadership only four months after losing it, securing more than 100 nominations from MPs when Liz Truss resigned, only to withdraw at the last minute. Rumours he might try again last month, on the back of a predicted backbench revolt against Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal, came to nothing when that revolt failed to materialise. But he remains an opportunist permanently in search of an opportunity. As the former chancellor George Osborne recently put it: “He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it.” If May’s local elections suggest the Tories are headed for a thumping general election defeat, his supporters will be out in force arguing that only he can turn things around. First, however, he has to try to stay in parliament.
Loyalists are vocal, organised, and not short of funds, but polling suggests they’re increasingly isolated
Over recent weeks his supporters have mounted an unprecedented campaign to discredit the cross-party privileges committee’s inquiry into Partygate, dismissing their investigation as rigged and crying foul over revelations that Sue Gray – the civil servant who originally conducted a Whitehall inquiry into lockdown partying – has been offered a job by Keir Starmer. They’ll argue, even if Johnson is found guilty, that the verdict somehow doesn’t count. “I think it’s a kangaroo court, I really do” says Greenhalgh. “The judgment will be in the court of public opinion.” But a Trumpian strategy of going over parliament’s head to the people, and hoping they in turn put pressure on MPs, relies on enough of the people still being with Boris Johnson.
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At first sight, Will is an unlikely member of the #bringbackBoris movement. A 60-year-old silversmith, living on the Cornish coast, he feels strongly about the environment and LGBT rights; he voted Conservative in 2019 because he felt Boris Johnson shared those liberal instincts. “Everyone knows he’s a maverick,” he explains. “I’m not a typical Tory, and he is aligned with my politics more than he is with his own party. I agreed with his net zero policy, that we should be at the forefront of it – I get an awful lot of flak from people who say: ‘I’d like him back but he can get rid of the net zero bollocks.’
“I liked his policy of levelling up, the idea of including the north and where I am in the south-west. I was disappointed when he reneged on his trans bill and watered that down. But he makes politics engaging – he has this kind of infectious enthusiasm and optimism.”
The main reason Will wants Johnson back, however, is to ‘“save” Brexit. A committed leaver, he’s convinced Johnson was ousted in order to water it down. “I can’t remember who said ‘get rid of Boris, you get rid of Brexit’, but I think it was quite true.” Will suspects Sunak of plotting against Johnson, and will probably spoil his ballot paper at the next election.
Perhaps more typical of Johnson’s true believers is Lindsay, a 65-year-old avid GB News viewer who runs her own business in the north-west and feels Johnson was “hounded out” by the media. She thinks he was “far too soft” on people crossing the Channel in small boats and unlike Will considers there was “too much green agenda” in his government. But he was the party members’ and the voters’ choice, she says, and she was incensed when Tory MPs effectively overrode it and ousted him. “I think it’s an insult to everybody’s intelligence,” she says. “He’s flawed like all politicians are flawed, but he’s a great statesman, a great orator.” She has always voted Conservative but loathes Sunak “with a passion” and wouldn’t do so while he remains leader – although if Johnson weren’t available, she wouldn’t mind having Liz Truss back.
For Harriet, a 49-year-old teacher from Cheshire who also voted leave, the remain-voting Jeremy Hunt becoming chancellor was the last straw. “I do think Boris has been very, very badly treated by the parliamentary party, or elements within it,” she says. “I just think he’s a winner. I’ve liked him ever since he beat Livingstone in London. He has an ability to engage the average voter that is quite extraordinary.” She won’t vote Conservative under Sunak, but might accept someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg “if they were genuinely endorsed by Boris”.
None of them is deterred by the Partygate inquiry. Will thinks the committee has already decided to find Johnson guilty, Lindsay had reservations about lockdown anyway, and Harriet thinks that while there was “poor behaviour, and things that shouldn’t have been happening” in Whitehall, that wasn’t really Johnson’s fault. “The story that he was partying when the Queen was mourning… he wasn’t even in London then.” She’s convinced Partygate is really being used “to stop Brexit”.
Harriet, Linda and Will all belong to the Conservative Democrats, an online group with about 13,000 followers originally created to support Johnson’s expected entry in last autumn’s leadership contest. It lives on as a place to exchange news and views that are pro-Boris and often hostile to Sunak (or Snake, as some members call him).
Boris is a return to the drama, which the political junkies love and the public really don’t – they want not to have to turn on the news
Some but not all also belong to the separate Conservative Democratic Organisation, established by Tory donor Lord Cruddas with Greenhalgh as its vice-president and seen by some as a front for a Johnson comeback, although Greenhalgh insists it’s about reversing the longstanding decline in party membership by returning power to the grassroots. Claims that they have the power to get hostile MPs deselected may be rather overstated, given they have only a few thousand members. But they’re close to friendly MPs, with Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries all due to take part in a CDO event in Bournemouth the week after the local elections which could become a rallying point for revolt if those results are bad. And as Jeremy Corbyn’s loyal footsoldiers once demonstrated, a motivated grassroots army still has the potential to make life miserable for MPs. (That matters because if Johnson is found guilty of lying, his punishment would be agreed in a vote of the whole house; only if he is suspended for 10 sitting days or more could a recall petition be triggered in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, giving constituents a chance to vote for a byelection). But if Johnson loyalists are undoubtedly vocal, organised, and not short of funds, polling suggests they’re also increasingly isolated in the country.
Two-thirds of voters don’t want him back, according to the pollsters Savanta ComRes. Eight in 10 now think he lied about lockdown parties, according to YouGov. And crucially, Rishi Sunak now leads Boris Johnson by 20 points among so-called “red wall” voters on who would make the best prime minister, according to an eve-of-budget poll by JL Partners.
Luke Tryl is a former Conservative special adviser under David Cameron and director of the social cohesion campaign group More in Common. He regularly runs focus groups in both leave-voting red wall areas and more traditionally Conservative “blue wall” ones, which split between leave and remain. The latter, he says, are warmer to Rishi Sunak: “If you bring up the idea of Boris coming back they say ‘I’ll never vote for the party again’.”
Red wall voters are by contrast more likely to see Sunak as rich and out of touch, believing Johnson understands their lives better. But even that doesn’t necessarily equal wanting him back. “You get: ‘Oh we like Boris, but we can’t have all that again, it’s too chaotic.’ The dominant mood in our politics at the moment is exhaustion, and the prize is for the person who can limit that. Boris is a return to the drama, which the political junkies love and the public really don’t – they want not to have to turn on the news,” says Tryl, who thinks most voters are more worried about their energy bills than Brexit. Leavers who now regret their referendum vote, meanwhile, are nursing a form of hangover. “It’s ‘we were promised a good time and it was certainly interesting, but all we got is a headache’.” Even non-Tory voters sometimes say they feel sorry for Sunak, clearing up the mess his predecessors left behind.
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Not everyone on the right, of course, considers Johnson-style populism dead. Prof Matt Goodwin, the academic best known for charting this rightwing revolt, argues in his new book, Values, Voice and Virtue, that volatility in British politics is here to stay and a post-Brexit realignment is still under way. But even Goodwin, who gave a private presentation on the electoral battleground to two separate groupings of Tory MPs earlier this month, thinks voters are disillusioned with Johnson. “It’s not just about the scandals. It’s also, for a lot of 2019 voters, that levelling up wasn’t really fleshed out properly, immigration numbers went up not down, Brexit became an ongoing fiasco – the project never really got off the ground.” If Johnson returned now, Goodwin thinks he’d probably lead the Tories into defeat. “They’d get demolished in London and the commuter belt, they’d lose the university towns, they would almost certainly lose a chunk of the red wall and get decimated in what’s left of [their seats] in Scotland and Wales. The Johnson brand is really, really toxic now, and I think Conservative MPs recognise that.” But that doesn’t mean his successor is entirely safe.
It’s difficult for his enemies to work out what he might do next when even his friends don’t always know
Unveiling his Northern Ireland protocol deal to parliament last month, Sunak politely thanked the predecessors he described as having “laid the groundwork” for it. The house promptly erupted in laughter.
While Liz Truss did try to reset relations with the EU during her short time in office, crediting Johnson with helping land a deal he has publicly attacked was arguably pushing it. But Sunak, not confrontational by nature, has deliberately sought to avoid all-out war with his predecessor. His strategy instead was to work methodically through the tasks he set himself at new year – lowering inflation, avoiding recession, convincing Tory voters he has done something about Channel crossings, resolving the NHS strikes – and hope that the Tories’ dire poll ratings would improve enough to end speculation about his future. Meanwhile he has quietly moved to bring potential threats inside the tent, most noticeably making outspoken red wall MP Lee Anderson deputy party chairman. (The two have forged an unlikely bond, with Anderson telling GB News viewers on the night the Brexit deal was done that his new boss had “balls of steel”.) He has privately taken advice from veterans of the Theresa May administration, similarly plagued by Johnson’s attempts to overthrow it. But killing his rival with competence relies on a still inexperienced prime minister never once making a mistake that allows his predecessor to pounce.
What makes Johnson so hard to beat, says one former Downing Street staffer, isn’t just his ruthless ambition or media fanclub but his unpredictability. “People underestimate the chaos. Sometimes when he causes a problem it’s definitely premeditated, but sometimes it’s that some journalist asks him something and he’s opened his mouth without thinking through the consequences.” It’s difficult for his enemies to work out what he might do next when even his friends don’t always know.
Sunak has made clear he won’t intervene in any punishment if Johnson is found guilty, declaring it “a matter for parliament” alone. One concern in Tory circles, however, is that if the privileges committee stops short of a career-ending sanction, Labour could challenge Sunak to withdraw the whip from Johnson as Keir Starmer did his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. That would risk provoking a Conservative civil war.
Related: Boris Johnson to give televised Partygate evidence
For now, all eyes remain on the local elections in May, probably the last conceivable point before next year’s general election at which Tory MPs might be persuaded to roll the leadership contest dice again. If it doesn’t happen then, Sunak might breathe easier, but he’ll also have a wounded and potentially vengeful former prime minister on his hands. (Johnson’s good friend Nadine Dorries is already writing a book on his downfall, from which the Sunak camp is highly unlikely to emerge well.)
Could Johnson be bought off with a new job? He was previously tipped for Nato secretary-general when the post falls vacant this year, but that job requires someone other European leaders trust, not someone who burned bridges over Brexit. One intriguing idea put to Sunak is offering Johnson the post of British ambassador to the US, with a mission to make sure the Republican right doesn’t waver on support for Ukraine. There may not be much love lost for Johnson at the Foreign Office after his stint as foreign secretary. But he’s well connected on Capitol Hill and the job comes with a grand grace-and-favour residence, lashings of prestige, plus intriguing opportunities for breaking into American public life – while conveniently putting the Atlantic between him and the Conservative party.
Until the various official inquiries have finished, however, there’s little chance of Johnson being approved even for a peerage. For now he remains in limbo, awaiting the verdicts that will determine whether like his hero Winston Churchill he has a second act in him. Even now, friends say he still wants to “leave his mark on history”. His enemies might retort that he has already marked it quite enough.