3 July 2024

Boris Johnson’s return should remind us of Rishi Sunak’s strengths


Do I owe Boris Johnson an apology? Having backed him twice in 2019, I was apathetic about his premiership, embarrassed by his fall, and critical of his ongoing mystic hold over certain Conservatives. But last night he reminded us Bojo-sceptics of his finer qualities which Rishi Sunak, alas, does not share. Our ex-Prime Minister (but one) served as a surprise warm up act for his successor (but one) in London.

His speech was an enjoyable surview of all the terrors beheld in ushering in a Labour supermajority.  In 2019, the voters ‘sent Jeremy Corbyn and his then-disciple Keir Starmer into orbit’. Since then, the UK has delivered a world-leading vaccine and stood up for Ukraine. Voting for Reform would ‘let the Putinistas deliver the Corbynistas’ and deliver ‘uncontrolled immigration, and mandatory wokery’. So it goes on. 

Alongside Michael Gove and David Cameron, Johnson turned a pre-election rally into the Tory equivalent of an aging rock group reuniting for one last show. The audience understands all the participants have fallen out with each other, and that their careers since their pomp have rapidly stagnated. But bring them back together, squint a little, and the old magic almost reappears.

By contrast, Sunak couldn’t help but underwhelm. ‘Isn’t it great to house our Conservative family united?’, he asked. It is, until one reads Suella Braverman’s recent Telegraph op-ed. Sunak listed various party achievements – including David Cameron ‘rescuing our country’ from ‘bankruptcy’ – while ignoring how many have been reversed post-lockdown. Didn’t he disown it all only ten months ago? 

More at home in front of a spreadsheet than behind a podium, it is no surprise that the Prime Minister isn’t a public speaker on Johnson’s level. He is a financier, not a journalist; a Pelotonist, not a populist. Seeing Johnson back in his natural habit does remind one of his unique campaigning alchemy and why so many voters adored him. 

He is especially popular with those currently tempted by Nigel Farage’s siren song. It might have been Boris Johnson’s government that enabled the surge in migration we have seen since 2019, and Rishi Sunak’s that put in place measures to curb its worst excesses. Johnson’s government may have collapsed in ignominy, infighting, and cake. But for many of us Brexiteers, he remains the tribune of our revolt.

Would Johnson have launched an election in the rain? Would he have skedaddled back from France to discuss his childhood TV subscriptions, rather than rubbing shoulders with fellow leaders in honour of the dead? Would he have embarked upon a campaign that switched message every five minutes, and that made the crumbling of that 2019 coalition a dead-certainty? Would he have out-clowned Ed Davey?

All of these questions are unanswerable, as counterfactuals always are. The instinct is to say that this Conservative campaign has been so miserable that Johnson couldn’t have possibly done a worse job. If nothing else, he would have brought a bit more joie de vivre to photo-ops. The 2019 campaign was almost fun. Love, Actually spoofs and BorisWave beats were better than ‘vote Tory to save this kitten’.  

But to lose oneself in idle fantasies about what could have, would have, should have been is to ignore the reality of our present situation. Johnson is no longer Prime Minister because he couldn’t control Number 10 and his own MPs didn’t trust him. Sunak has been a far from perfect occupant of Number 10, but he was the best the Conservative Party had available and has kept the machine ticking over. 

Yes, he isn’t mobbed in shopping centres, or spontaneously lauded by vest-wearing voters swigging Stella on a curbside. But he is also a far better debater than most give him credit for. He wiped the floor with Keir Starmer at their various co-appearances, hammering home his message about Labour’s tax rise. Starmer wasn’t quite a puce-faced Joe Biden, but he struggled against Sunak’s discipline and grit.

Sunak can also be commended for his sheer stamina. Perhaps his decision to hot foot back from Normandy suggests a little too much enthusiasm for the campaign trail. Yet he has tirelessly visited seat after seat, many with worryingly large majorities, for the last six weeks. By contrast, Johnson proved his commitment by sunning himself in Sardinia. He has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

Moreover, the Conservative manifesto also provided the most realistic marrying of high aspirations to fiscal sanity of any available. When your opponents are a Labour party planning radical decarbonisation and Reform UK deploying maths that would make Liz Truss blush, that is hardly the highest accolade. But the Tory black hole was smaller, and their £17 billion in tax cuts more realistic. 

Of course, the spectre of unreality still hangs over everything from warm words on housebuilding to the latest shallow pledges on migration. As the last five years have proved, a manifesto can survive no longer than immediate contact with some tasty Chinese bat soup. But Sunak does at least promise a form of leadership the country often, alas, requires – dry, intelligent, diligent management of our decline. 

Some of us would like that decline to be reversed. But if the immediate choice is between the unvarnished Blob rule of Starmer and the unappetizing golf club bores of Reform, the only logical option is still to vote Conservative. I have no illusions that a five-year Sunak term would fix all Britain’s problems. But I didn’t think that of Johnson, either, and he still got my vote. It all turned out so dandy.

Many readers will struggle to vote Tory again, after 14 years of broken promises, stagnant growth, and ludicrous levels of immigration. Some might still be smarting from Brexit, or lockdown, or the mini-Budget. But we do not live in a perfect world. Sunak is not a good campaigner as Johnson, but at least he can chair meetings. If you think that is setting a low bar, you haven’t met enough politicians. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.