LONDON — It was classic Boris Johnson to be on a trip to Cairo when he lobbed yet another political grenade at his enemies in the UK Conservative Party. Since he was ousted by them almost a year ago, the former premier has been determined to retain the clout of a leader and expand the narrative of betrayal — pocketing hundreds of thousands for appearances in the process.
His dramatic resignation from Parliament late Friday had it all — the “witch-hunt” led by politicians still angry at Brexit and an ungrateful Tory party wasting Johnson’s achievements under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Motivated by self-preservation and revenge, the announcement appeared timed to inflict maximum damage on the current occupant of 10 Downing Street.
Johnson’s move does represent an immediate, significant challenge for Sunak. His Tories now face potentially tricky elections for three Parliament seats — two Johnson allies, Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams, also quit — and Sunak will be desperate to avoid adding losses to the poor showing in local elections so close to a national vote expected in 2024.
The arrest of former Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon over the weekend added to the sense of jeopardy facing Sunak. The SNP’s implosion is expected to benefit the UK’s opposition Labour Party, which has a double-digit lead over the Tories in national surveys.
But the key question for Sunak and the Conservative Party — and for investors trying to assess where the UK is heading after years of Tory turmoil — is how much damage Johnson plans to do or can do from the sidelines. That’s the implied threat in Johnson’s full-throated attack on Sunak’s government, and his warning that he is exiting front-line politics “for now.”
Over the weekend, Johnson allies set out a scenario in which Sunak leads them to an emphatic defeat and the party returns to the man who won an 80-seat majority in 2019.
“His dramatic move – and his own hint that he will seek another parliamentary berth – puts him in pole position to return as Conservative leader if a vacancy should arise,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, who received a knighthood from Johnson in his controversial honors list published Friday just before his bombshell announcement, wrote in the Mail on Sunday.
Yet based on interviews with Tory MPs from across the party, that is a minority view. They pointed to the fact that only two allies followed Johnson in quitting as evidence of his fading influence. It echoed his failed and embarrassingly small rebellion against Sunak’s reworking of the Brexit deal Johnson signed.
One Tory MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Johnson would face a Conservative backlash if he causes problems for Sunak and is seen to have played a part in an election defeat. Another called Johnson’s antics a sideshow, and there was widespread skepticism Johnson would be motivated by being an opposition leader. Others said Johnson’s departure would bolster Sunak’s position by removing a damaging distraction.
“It gives Sunak a real chance to make his mark on the Tory party,” said Sophie Stowers from the UK In A Changing Europe think tank, “as the specter of Johnson is finally gone from Parliament.”
What the MPs describe is effectively the difference between the Brexit-campaigning, buccaneering version of Johnson from 2016 to 2019 and the post-pandemic version, weighed down by scandal and the legacy of being fined by police for breaking the Covid-19 rules he helped write.
Johnson’s resignation came on the day the US announced federal charges against former President Donald Trump, and it was unsurprising that some Tory MPs referenced the pair. It’s a frequent comparison, given that Johnson and Trump were natural allies on Brexit and shared a populist conservatism that leaned on appealing to working-class voters to win power.
Among their differences is how their political approach is working for them now. Trump retains a grip on the Republican Party, while what Tory MPs saw as Johnson’s Trumpian outburst on Friday left him more isolated in the party.
A major reason is that Johnson’s electoral appeal plummeted in the wake of the “partygate” scandal over rule-breaking in Downing Street during the pandemic. Johnson frequently argues — and did again in his diatribe against Sunak on Friday — that he was ousted as prime minister with the Tories trailing Labour by only a handful of points in the polls.
In reality, the slide was already dramatic, and surveys showed a majority of Britons thought Johnson was doing a bad job. The party had already started to lose what it considered safe seats, and fear of losing the next election was a key reason why so many Tory MPs wanted to pull the plug.
Johnson’s references to his electoral popularity and achievements, including in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, are also undermined by the fact that in resigning, he is avoiding putting that to an electoral test. According to one Tory MP, the party expects to lose the seat.
Other accusations in his letter are also refutable. On the day Sunak returned from a two-day visit to Washington, Johnson questioned why the government had “so passively abandoned the prospect of a Free Trade Deal with the US.” Yet Johnson — who said an FTA would be a Brexit prize — was in the Oval Office when President Joe Biden first made it clear a deal wasn’t on the table, and Johnson’s administration regularly briefed that an FTA was not realistic.
“Johnson has departed in his own style, kicking and screaming with so much drama, inflicting damage as he goes,” Tory MP and Johnson critic Tobias Ellwood told GB News. “His actions are akin to mutiny.”
Johnson has been on the ropes before and bounced back — he’s known in Westminster as “Teflon” or the “greased piglet” — including when he was written off after resigning from Theresa May’s government in protest at her Brexit plans in 2018. He was party leader a year later.
Sunak has yet to comment on Johnson’s departure. One Downing Street official said the optimistic view is that the Johnson drama fizzles out. The pessimistic view is it becomes a soap opera costing the Tories the election, the official said.
What’s clear is that Johnson’s enmity for Sunak is not fading. People familiar with the matter say Johnson blames Sunak for not intervening in the Parliament inquiry into “partygate” and for not honoring his request to give allies, including Dorries and Adams, lifetime peerages in the House of Lords.
Sunak’s office has denied having any involvement in Johnson’s honors list.
In resigning before the House of Commons — which has a Conservative working majority of over 60 — voted to suspend him, Johnson has ensured that humiliation does not hang over him. It points to him being louder and more critical of Sunak, albeit from afar. The former Telegraph columnist is well-versed in political provocation.
“I wouldn’t bet on a Johnson comeback even in the long term. But I fully expect him and his diehard fans in the Tory media to cause Sunak a world of pain between now and the general election,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London. “Anything that harms Sunak helps Boris.”
At the very least, Johnson has again managed to shift the Westminster focus back to him, and away from what Sunak wants to be talking about. The three elections are likely to sustain that, framed around the Johnson-Sunak rivalry.
But according to Stowers at UK In A Changing Europe, the biggest problem facing Sunak is how Johnson’s departure again reveals the cracks in Tory support.
It has been a long-running struggle for Sunak, as he tries to appease working-class voters in the north of England and middle classes in the south — which came together uniquely for Johnson in the last general election.
“Unfortunately for Sunak, the departure of Johnson highlights how the coalition of voters he united at the 2019 election has gone too,” she said.