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BIRMINGHAM, England — They say absence makes the heart grow fonder — and it’s the absent guests from this year’s Conservative Party conference who will be among the hottest topics of conversation.
Neither former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, nor his former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, are expected to attend the annual party gathering, which kicks off on Sunday in Birmingham.
Johnson, ejected from Downing Street by his Tory colleagues last month, was last spotted on a flight to the south of Spain with wife Carrie. Sunak, defeated in his bid to succeed Johnson as U.K. prime minister, has also vowed to keep his distance, offering wryly — via anonymous sources — to give his successful rival Liz Truss “all the space she needs to own the moment.”
Truss, of course, is engulfed in turmoil less than four weeks into her premiership, after her disastrous “mini-budget” crashed the pound, sent borrowing rates soaring and almost collapsed the U.K. pensions industry.
With the opposition Labour Party surging to an historic 30-point lead in the opinion polls, panicking Tory MPs are already murmuring about Truss’ future. And — unlikely as it may seem to outsiders — Johnson’s name still hovers around the top of the betting to become the next Conservative leader.
The former PM remains hugely popular among Tory Party members, having polled better than both Truss and Sunak throughout the summer-long leadership contest. A petition to have his name added to the final ballot attracted thousands of signatures. And MPs are well aware that he remains the only Tory leader to have won a decent-sized parliamentary majority in decades.
“Johnson is the off-the-shelf solution for lots of people,” a Tory MP noted this week.
Don’t expect the former PM to dampen the speculation. When he exited the famous black door of Downing Street last month to hand over the reins, Johnson offered a characteristic hint that he harbors ambitions for a return.
“I am now like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function,” he told the nation. “I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific. And like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plow.”
If that sounded like the end of the story, political observers were quick to point out that Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman, later returned to office when called upon — albeit as a dictator. The message from Johnson seemed clear: When the people need me, I will be back.
Johnson’s motivation in part lies in the fact that he does not believe he did wrong, despite the numerous personal scandals which engulfed his period in office. During his outgoing speech, he bitterly accused the colleagues who ousted him of having “changed the rules halfway through.”
“Boris will take a long time to come to terms with — and in fact will probably never come to terms with — the fact that the only architect of Boris’s demise, was Boris,” said one close watcher of the PM.
Asked whether Johnson could stage a comeback, the same person said: “The one thing you always know with Boris is that no one knows what Boris thinks — including Boris.”
A second coming?
Former allies of Johnson believe that even he knows, however, that the chances of a second coming are slim — but that he will nevertheless enjoy keeping the narrative alive.
“He loves the limelight; he loves being the center of attention,” said Will Walden, who served as Johnson’s right hand man when he was mayor of London.
Walden expects Johnson to make speeches and write articles in an effort to convince a skeptical nation that his short stint in Downing Street was a successful one — as well as to make significant sums of cash. He said keeping alive the narrative of a possible comeback would be part of an effort to paint his ousting as unjust.
“But I think he knows a comeback is never going to happen,” Walden added. “He knows the public has moved on. He knows the Conservative Party is ruthless. I think it would be a pretty odd experience to go back to him.”
Conservative former Cabinet minister David Davis, who has long known Johnson, said the chances of him returning to office are “as near to zero as you’re going to find. There are lots of handicaps and hurdles which make this an amusing story, but not a probable prediction.”
Davis listed those hurdles: Johnson’s stock is too low among too many Conservative MPs; he is facing an investigation into whether he lied to the House of Commons; he won’t want to serve in opposition, but if the Tories win the next election he won’t be needed for the foreseeable future; his reputation could suffer during the upcoming public probe into the COVID-19 pandemic; and he could lose his marginal Uxbridge seat at a future election.
It’s undoubtedly true that with a majority of just 5,000 in his west London constituency, Johnson is at risk of being voted out of parliament at the next election. Were he to try to secure a safer seat ahead of 2024, it would be seen as a clear statement of intent that he fancies a return to Downing Street.
Always keep them guessing
Johnson, of course, is no stranger to keeping the punters guessing. His eventual rise to Downing Street followed a decade of fevered speculation about his motives, with his every move scrutinized through the prism of his ambitions for power.
He became a master at hogging the limelight. His mayoral team in London would organize events, then wake up that morning to a row over a controversial newspaper column he’d written, often criticizing the Conservative government in Westminster. Aides would look on with frustration as journalists lined up to ask about the latest furor instead of the chosen topic.
Throughout those years, Johnson’s colorful attempts at evasion when asked about his political ambitions seemed designed to stoke the speculation rather than shut it down. He memorably claimed he was more likely to be “reincarnated as an olive” or “decapitated by a frisbee” than become U.K. prime minister. Neither, journalists noted, was an outright denial.
The months and years ahead may revert to a similar pattern, with Johnson likely to maintain enough of a profile — and deliver enough snark about his successors — to keep tongues wagging about a possible comeback.
His biographer Sonia Purnell said he will “undermine; he will send barbs from the sidelines; he will mock; he will come up with eye-catching insults.”
One person who knows what it’s like to be the victim of that undermining is Craig Oliver, who served as director of communications for former Prime Minister David Cameron.
Oliver said the Cameron administration had been forced to accept that Johnson would absorb an entire 24 hours of attention when he dropped in to the annual Conservative conference during the early 2010s to make his annual speech, with a “whole circus” of journalists and activists hanging on his every word.
“It seemed clear then that the Conservative Party was going to have to have an affair with Boris,” Oliver said, “even though many knew it would end in heartbreak.”
There will be plenty of Tory members in Birmingham this week still hoping to rekindle the romance.