Has Rishi Sunak Finally Killed Off Boris Johnson's Comeback Hopes?
Boris Johnson would love to be prime minister again
It takes a lot to make Boris Johnson avoid the limelight, but Rishi Sunak briefly managed it this week.
The prime minister’s successful negotiation of the Windsor Framework led to a period of uncharacteristic silence from his predecessor-but-one.
For the first 48 hours after the agreement was published, while others rushed to the nearest camera to give their opinion, a source close to Johnson said he was “studying and reflecting on the government’s proposals”.
Johnson eventually broke cover on Thursday and said he would find it “very difficult” to support the deal.
This is hardly surprising, given the whole point of the Windsor Framework was to clean up the mess caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, the deal which Johnson had insisted would “get Brexit done” three years ago.
It was noticeable, however, that there was no Johnsonian rallying cry for Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party to rise up and vote down Sunak’s deal.
Indeed, the former PM also acknowledged that voters, seven years on from the EU referendum, want to just move on from Brexit.
He has no doubt picked up on the prevailing mood among even the most eurosceptic Tory MPs grudgingly accept that Sunak’s deal is a vast improvement on the status quo.
As Brexit-backing former Tory leader Michael Howard said: “Boris Johnson would have bitten Michel Barnier’s hand off to get an agreement as good as this.”
Boris Johnson finally gave his reaction to Sunak's Brexit deal at the Global Soft Power Summit in London on Thursday.
It has led to a growing belief among Conservative Party figures that Sunak has finally ended Johnson’s fading hopes of a Downing Street comeback this side of the next general election.
A Tory source told HuffPost UK: “I do think Boris has lost this now. The majority of MPs have been though enough Brexit turmoil to last a lifetime and the 2019 intake have never lived through it but have no desire to do so.
“There is always a small majority who think Boris is the messiah but largely we can drown them out.”
A former cabinet minister said: “The chances of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister again were always remote, but I think this week they’ve finally been killed off.
“Conservative MPs are very impressed by how Rishi has dealt with the EU and got this new deal, which by any measure is far better than the one Boris got - or could ever have hoped to get.”
Sunak’s reputation among the public has also been given a boost by his Brexit breakthrough, with YouGov reporting that his favourability ratings among the public - so poor for such a long time - are finally heading in a positive direction.
The re-emergence of partygate this week is another reason why Johnson’s leadership hopes are receding.
Sue Gray’s imminent appointment as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, and the over-the-top reaction from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, has reminded the public of how Johnson turned a blind eye to lockdown-busting parties in 10 Dowing Street.
Unhelpfully for the former PM, the privileges committee also published an interim report on their investigation into whether he misled parliament over partygate.
Although he doesn’t given evidence to them until later this month, their initial findings suggest he will have to work hard to convince them he isn’t guilty.
They identify four occasions when he may have misled the Commons, and say the breaches of lockdown rules by Number 10 staff “would have been obvious” to the then PM, who repeatedly insisted none were broken.
If found guilty, Johnson could be suspended from parliament and potentially expelled as an MP.
It would be a spectacular fall from grace for a man who once held the highest office in the land, but for whom the prospects of a comeback have receded greatly in the past seven days.