It is one of the worst-kept secrets in British politics that Boris Johnson, despite being ousted as prime minister last year, remains determined to make a dramatic return to Downing Street.
While Johnson has kept a relatively low profile since being unceremoniously dumped out of office in September, there are mounting signs that, far from accepting that his political career is over, he is laying the foundations for a political comeback.
Despite the controversial nature of his departure from Downing Street, when the majority of Conservative MPs finally tired of his shambolic running of the country, Johnson remains popular with Conservative voters.
Opinion polls continue to show he remains the Conservative Party’s most popular candidate as leader. His electoral appeal was demonstrated in early January when he was dining with his political aides at a fashionable Mayfair restaurant and was applauded by other diners who urged him to return to the political stage.
Nor can the prospect of a Johnson return be ruled out so long as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government continues to struggle with a number of pressing political issues, from the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Ukraine conflict to resolving many of the outstanding issues over Brexit, such as the Northern Ireland protocol.
Johnson is certainly well aware of the challenges Sunak is facing as he made clear when addressing a recent meeting at London’s Carlton Club, when he called on the Conservatives to make the case “for a low tax global Britain.”
This was seen as a direct challenge to Sunak’s economic policies, which have resulted in British taxes rising to their highest levels since the 1950s. Suggestions that Johnson is actively considering a return to front-line politics have increased following the revelation that he has received a number of sizeable donations from Conservative Party donors, including one for £1 million, that could be used to fund a political campaign.
Close political aides say Johnson is “itching” to make a return to Downing Street and is simply waiting for what he believes is the right moment to launch his comeback. Johnson had an opportunity to challenge Sunak directly last year after Liz Truss, his successor as prime minister, was herself forced to resign.
It later transpired that Johnson received the backing of more than 100 Tory MPs to replace her, but ultimately decided not to run against Sunak, who had the backing of the majority of Conservative MPs. In public, Johnson has been deliberately vague about his future plans, giving tantalising hints that he might yet make a dramatic return to frontline politics.
In his final appearance at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in the summer, Johnson declared that his three-year term as UK leader was "mission largely accomplished, for now" before signing-off with "hasta la vista, baby."
There was an even more enigmatic reference to his future ambitions in his final address to the British nation outside Downing Street. Johnson compared himself to the Roman general Cincinnatus, who retired to his farm following a distinguished military career. But as a former classics’ scholar at Oxford University, Johnson would also know that Cincinnatus was later obliged to return to Rome, where he helped defend the Republic from attack by invaders.
This important nuance was certainly not lost on British political commentators, who quickly pointed out that Johnson’s reference meant he was deliberately leaving the door open for a political return.
This is not the speech of a departing prime minister who necessarily thinks he’s going away forever. And he’s enough of a classics scholar to know, in comparing himself with Cincinnatus leaving for his farm, that when the call came Cincinnatus returned to Rome.— Andrew Neil (@afneil) September 6, 2022
As Andrew Neil, the former editor of The Sunday Times newspaper tweeted, “This is not the speech of a departing prime minister who necessarily thinks he’s going away forever. And he’s enough of a classics scholar to know, in comparing himself with Cincinnatus leaving for his farm, that, when the call came, Cincinnatus returned to Rome.”
The suggestion that Johnson may yet plot a return to frontline politics in Britain has been boosted by recent opinion polls which show he is far more popular among the British public than his successor, Liz Truss. An Opinium poll taken in August found that 63 per cent of Conservative Party members preferred Johnson as leader compared with Truss, who polled just 22 per cent.
Another Opinium poll taken in early October showed that Truss was more unpopular with British voters, with a net -37 approval rating. Johnson’s lowest approval rating was in the summer when it stood at -28 per cent.
On 25 October 2022, Sunak became prime minister, replacing Truss.
In public, Johnson still insists that he has no intention of staging a comeback, but as someone who knows the former prime minister well from the time we worked together as journalists on The Daily Telegraph newspaper, I know from experience that his rivals dismiss him at their peril.