Could Boris Johnson come back as the next UK Prime Minister?

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Published: August 3, 2018 3:40:23 PM

Johnson had the most impressive and ornate office of anyone in the cabinet, and the freedom to roam the globe as the Queen’s most senior diplomat.

Boris Johnson (Reuters)

He quit the second-best job in British politics, but many Conservatives hope Boris Johnson will go one better. As foreign secretary, Johnson had the most impressive and ornate office of anyone in the cabinet, and the freedom to roam the globe as the Queen’s most senior diplomat. He was the public face of Brexit and the senior minister most often mentioned in discussions of who could replace Theresa May as Tory leader.

Then on July 9, he gave it all up. Often dismissed as a joker by opponents, Johnson decided to stand up for his principles and resign — because he couldn’t stomach May’s plan for a soft divorce from the European Union. A clutch of other ministers also quit in protest, but it’s Johnson who appears to have benefited the most in terms of popularity, according to new research into what Tory members think.

The question is whether he will be able to convert his Brexit bounce into a campaign for the leadership of the party — whenever the next contest comes. While Johnson is tight-lipped about his own ambitions, few of his colleagues believe he has ruled out a future run at the premiership.

“I’m not writing him off,” said Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website. “What Boris has got to do is to persuade Tory MPs he is the man to save their seats — that’s the challenge for him.”

The renewed debate surrounding the leadership comes at a tense time for the Conservative government. May has faced calls to stand down from angry pro-Brexit Tories who accuse her of betraying their dream of a clean break from the EU.

Some Tory members of Parliament have even lodged formal letters calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership — the precursor to an election to replace her.

Against this backdrop, May has less than three months to finalize the terms of the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU, and to strike a deal that is acceptable to other European nations as well as the warring pro- and anti-Brexit factions in her own party.

She must complete her task without the support of Johnson or former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who also quit last month. Both men oppose her plan to keep the U.K. tied to the EU’s single-market rules for trade in goods after leaving the bloc.

Clear Favorite

A survey of 1,363 Tory members by ConservativeHome this week made Johnson the clear favorite among the party faithful to be the next leader after May. On Thursday, the website published further findings showing just how far the prime minister herself has fallen.

With an approval score of -48, May is now at the bottom of the website’s ranking of how party members judge ministers are performing.

Pro-Brexit members of Parliament said the results match their own experiences.

“At a meeting of party members, they were all very supportive of Boris and David Davis, saying ‘we want a leader who actually stands for something.”’ said Conservative lawmaker Peter Bone. “That’s what they are crying out for.”

Another Tory said Johnson has gained stature since resigning, and that his newfound freedom means he’s also able to travel the country, drumming up support from grassroots party members.

“He’s far from dead — he’s a proven winner and he could easily get it,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.

Even so, it’s not clear that Johnson actually wants the job — and May has shown every sign of aiming to cling to power for as long as she can. Newspapers have been reporting she could be ousted within months, but whoever takes over would still face the challenge of trying to get a Brexit deal through Parliament without a governing majority.

Johnson’s allies also say that his resignation was purely about Brexit, and that he hopes to sway the debate so that the U.K. gets the best deal from the divorce. Yet before he quit, Johnson had been working hard to make friends with Conservatives in Parliament, said another senior Tory. He was hosting and attending drinks parties, and unlike in previous years, knew the names of most of his colleagues.

If he does decide to enter the contest to succeed May — whenever that comes — Johnson faces a challenge in the form of the arcane Conservative Party rules for electing a new leader.

Several Rounds

In the first stage, Conservative members of Parliament will conduct a series of votes to whittle down the field of contenders to two. The finalists will then be put to a ballot of party members in the country — the same people who put Johnson top of their wishlist this week.

To persuade Tory MPs to back him, Johnson has to show them he’s an election winner and “he has got a plan to get them through Brexit,” said Goodman at ConservativeHome. Polling shows Johnson has unusually wide support among the general public, though this was dented by his decision to campaign for Brexit in the divisive 2016 referendum, he said.

The survey shows Johnson’s grassroots popularity, but it doesn’t solve the two biggest obstacles in his way, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. His parliamentary colleagues “are less convinced than ever that he’s the right man for the job — and voters are less amused by him than they used to be,” he said.

That assessment was backed up by one minister, who warned ambitious colleagues against a leadership contest to oust May that would “bring down the government,” and insisted the cabinet was better without Johnson.

“He’s busted. He’s finished. He’s gone,” the minister said.

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