15 June 2023

Why Boris is destined to remain the Tory Arthur


Boris Johnson’s resignation letter was not an exercise in concision or understatement. On the evils of the Privileges Committee and the shortcomings of the current Government, the former prime minister neither minced his words nor spared them.

But on the subject of his own future, he showed a flash of the storyteller’s art. Four words – ‘at least for now’ – and a whole world of possibilities. Or dreams, anyway.

The idea that Johnson might stage an heroic return is essential to the myth of Boris. After a crushing and near total fall from grace, it will doubtless salve his ego to live on as the great Tory Arthur, sleeping beneath his hill until such time as his party, and his country, come to their senses.

On a more material note, the king-over-the-water act will sustain his public profile, provide endless copy for slow news days, and ensure that he remains a potent totem for disaffected Conservatives to rally around. 

As I pointed out in a previous piece, self-styled right-wingers will be much more comfortable fixing their hopes on the idea of Boris, and the sort of ‘properly Conservative government’ he can talk about but not deliver, than the prevaricating, spendthrift reality of Johnson.

Yet it’s one thing to set out why it suits him to try to turn the next few years into one of those post-credit teasers tacked on to a Marvel film, and quite another to think that it will actually happen. Because unless the Tories take complete leave of their senses – not impossible, I grant you – the barriers to Boris staging a comeback are formidable.

Doubtless there are many Conservative constituency associations which would fall over themselves to have him as a candidate. But since 1997, they have not had the freedom to select whoever they liked. It is CCHQ that decides who gets on the list of approved candidates, and draws up the shortlists from which even the most mutinous local party must make its choice.

That means that the central party, and Rishi Sunak, would need to sign off on Johnson both being allowed back onto the Tory candidates list at all, and then approve his selection for a suitably safe seat. This, surely, isn’t likely.

The Prime Minister is in a delicate position. His predecessor’s supporters may be a minority of both the MPs and the grassroots, but they are a noisy and energised minority. Likewise, facing a difficult general election, he won’t want to alienate those voters who felt they backed Johnson personally in 2019 if he can help it.

Such considerations must be balanced against his clear (and perfectly understandable) efforts to draw a clear line between his government and his predecessor’s on matters of probity and good conduct in public office. 

These competing concerns will pull Sunak in very different directions on Monday, when the House of Commons must vote on whether or not to accept the Privileges Committee’s report; the severity of the sanctions it has recommended will likely swell the ranks of Boris’s sympathisers.

Yet it is all but unthinkable that the Government could not endorse it, especially after the way Johnson and his supporters have conducted themselves over the past week.

If that is the case, then for all the dark warnings from people like Jacob Rees-Mogg against the party blocking their hero’s next glorious re-entrance, it would be mad not to.

For starters, had Johnson wanted to stay in Parliament he could have fought the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip which would probably have been triggered by a successful recall petition following his suspension from the House of Commons. 

He would almost certainly have lost. But it wouldn’t be certain: a special poll of the seat from Lord Ashcroft suggested otherwise and on top of that, it’s Boris. Campaigning is what he’s good at. He could have turned the whole thing into a single-issue referendum on ULEZ.

Winning would obviously have transformed his circumstances overnight. But even losing would at least have demonstrated his commitment to his constituents and to Parliament, not to mention perhaps providing a moment of catharsis which might have earthed some of the ill-will which has built up towards him. Any path to national treasure status Michael Portillo can blaze, Boris Johnson can follow.

As it stands, he flounced out. Moreover, he did so by openly attacking the Government for various things – raising taxes, neglecting the housing crisis, ignoring retained EU law – which he, in fact, did. Even worse, his allies have made it quite clear in their conduct and anonymous quotes to journalists that they have scant regard for the collective interests of the Conservative Party; Nadine Dorries, for instance, is deliberately stringing out her resignation to delay the Mid-Bedfordshire by-election and increase the odds of a Tory defeat.

It should go without saying that such conduct ought to rule somebody out of a place on the candidates list – let alone the prospect of doing a chicken-run to a plum seat. There might be some poetic justice in giving Johnson the chance to win back Uxbridge – good luck with that – but he doesn’t deserve anything else.

Perhaps if the Conservatives lose in 2024 the next leadership might take a more indulgent view. Johnson’s supporters could be key votes in any leadership contest, and the candidates might therefore try to woo them by holding out the prospect of a path back to Parliament for Boris.

But would it ever be in their interests to actually provide one? The man’s unsated ambition is obvious, as is his disregard for collective responsibility or the broader interests of the party when they diverge from his own. In the Commons he could not help be a destabilising force even if he did not want the crown, which he would.

Any future leader who secured their position with such a promise would thus more than likely be mortgaging their leadership, and sooner or later Boris would collect.

Which leaves the more fanciful options. The funniest by some margin would be for him to follow in the footsteps of Enoch Powell and return to the Commons as a Northern Irish MP; Boris certainly has the chutzpah to stand as a Democratic Unionist on a platform of tearing down the very Irish Sea border he signed off.

But the DUP are, unfortunately for history, unlikely to prove as amnesiac as Johnson’s votaries in the Tory Party. 

That leaves the prospect of a new party. Nigel Farage – a far cannier operator than Richard Tice, whose forlorn Reform UK appears to be nowhere in these discussions – has already invited Johnson to launch one with him.

Such a party would certainly get a lot of attention. Farage proved as leader of UKIP that he is able to put in the hard yards of building up a minor party, and the Brexit Party showed how he can cash in that reputation to conjure a new organisation almost out of thin air. Add Boris’ star power, the thinking goes, and you might really have something.

But there are (thanks to Farage and Johnson) now no European elections to afford such a party an easy battlefield and access to public funding. Farage has never yet proven himself able to win under first-past-the-post, and the promising foundation Ukip had finally laid by 2015, when it came second in a hundred seats, has been squandered.

Even if it suited Boris’s ego to lead a right-wing version of the Liberal Democrats (and it does not), and even if he and Farage were likely to be able to create a harmonious, politically-coherent movement (and they are not), the odds of such a project succeeding would be extremely long – especially as, outside the Commons, Johnson wouldn’t be able to woo defectors or give them an existing parliamentary group to defect to.

Ultimately, my rule of thumb for trying to predict what Boris will do is to pose the question: what will make for a more pleasing autobiography? This sort of scouring-of-the-shyster postscript isn’t it.

Far better, if the dream of a triumphant return to Downing Street cannot be realised, to nurture the myth of what might have been, and play up to the fantasies of those prepared to wilfully forget what actually was. Once he is comfortably set up with his new column, and perhaps a TV show, it will surely take an awful lot to tempt him to risk it all for another run.

All in all, therefore, I suspect we’re more likely to see Arthur return to the throne than Boris to Number 10. Oh well, he was always better suited to Avalon than Camelot.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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