Three issues that could stop a Boris Johnson comeback

Partygate inquiry, murky personal finances and sceptical Tory MPs all hinder a second coming

Boris Johnson saying farewell to supporters on Downing Street on 5 September 2022
Boris Johnson says farewell to supporters on Downing Street in September
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The press, politicians and political pundits across Westminster are speculating on whether Boris Johnson could be preparing a dramatic political comeback – perhaps as soon as the summer.

Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun claimed Johnson “has been engineering his second coming since the moment he waved ‘Hasta la vista’ on his final day as PM”.

Last week, the former prime minister rallied his supporters at an event in London “that looked like the start of a comeback tour”, said Sky News. This was followed just days later by reports Johnson had received a £1m donation from a pro-Brexit backer to fund his office.

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“If ever there was evidence to support the claims that Johnson and his adoring fans are plotting a comeback to – as they see it – to save the Conservative Party from a crushing election defeat under Rishi Sunak, this is it,” said the broadcaster.

But while it is an open secret that Johnson and his supporters view his time in office as unfinished business, there are several major obstacles standing in the way of a political second act to rival that of his hero, Winston Churchill.

Partygate inquiry

The most immediate threat to Johnson comes from the House of Commons privileges committee investigation into whether he knowingly misled Parliament over the Partygate scandal.

While reports of lockdown-breaking parties at the heart of government contributed to his dramatic downfall last year, fresh revelations could see him suspended from Parliament, permanently ending his hopes of a second stint in Downing Street.

A new ITV podcast Partygate: The Inside Story released last week claimed Johnson had joked to staff that “this is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now”, during an alcohol-fuelled leaving party at No.10.

“The claim is among several damning new revelations aired on the podcast – including an allegation staff deliberately destroyed evidence of partying before the Sue Gray and Met Police investigations, the latter of which would make 10 Downing Street the most law-breaking address in the country during lockdown,” said ITV News.

The Mirror said it will “add fuel” to the Commons investigation into whether the ex-prime minister lied about parties in No.10 during lockdown, with the i news site reporting his “allies believe the privileges committee, and his appearance at the official Covid inquiry later this year, are the two hurdles he needs to clear before being able to stage a political comeback”.

The forthcoming inquiry is a “formidable obstacle”, agreed Paul Goodman in The Times, and “the stakes are high for the former prime minister”, said the Financial Times. “If the committee finds him to be in contempt of parliament, he could be suspended from the Commons. If he is suspended for more than 10 days there could be a ‘recall petition’. If this is signed by more than 10% of constituents in his Uxbridge constituency it would lead to a by-election,” the paper said.

However, “there will be more at stake than a potential comeback for the former prime minister”, said The Guardian. “What will unfold is a tussle for power between the country’s defenestrated premier and its parliament, the likes of which, Johnson’s supporters say, has not been seen since King Charles I was summoned to Westminster Hall in 1649 and executed.”

Murky personal finances

From Wallpaper-gate to questions over luxury holidays and dodgy donations during and after his time in office, Johnson’s personal finances have long been seen as his Achilles heel.

He has now become “embroiled in a fresh row over money” as the former prime minister was “urged to come clean about his financial affairs and end his Conservative leadership ambitions”, the Independent reported.

It comes after The Sunday Times revealed that Johnson secured an £800,000 credit facility in December 2020 while he was in No.10, guaranteed by a millionaire Canadian relative who was at the time being considered for a position as chief executive of the British Council.

“It should help kill off any chance he has of coming back,” one Tory backbencher told the Independent. “He wasn’t a suitable character to be PM. The stories about Partygate and his finances would keep on coming if he tried to come back.”

It comes just days after it was revealed that Johnson and his family are continuing to live rent free in a £20m home in Knightsbridge, central London, owned by Tory donors Lord and Lady Bamford.

NatWest Group chairman Sir Howard Davies said that Johnson’s personal finances might lead to market misgivings should a future comeback happen.

“Running the country is not the same as running his own finances, where it seems there are mysterious people prepared to fill in any budget gap,” he told the BBC.

Lack of support among Tory MPs

Despite the vocal support of a small number of Tory loyalists, “many Tory MPs are aghast at the prospect of Johnson returning after being forced out of office last summer amid questions over Partygate, his attitude to party sleaze and his integrity”, said the i news site’s policy editor Jane Merrick.

Highlighting a lack of support among Tory MPs for yet another bitter leadership election, The Spectator’s political editor Katy Balls said that “as things stand, his support base hasn’t really changed”, adding that “the MPs Johnson needs to win round are those who didn’t back him last time”.

Yet things can change quickly in politics. A disastrous showing for the party in May’s local elections “could, the argument goes, force MPs with more than one eye on the next general election (expected in 2024) to oust [Rishi] Sunak and turn once again to the man who led them to a landslide victory in 2019”, said Kevin Schofield on HuffPost.

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