DAN HODGES: Are the Tories really about to put in a call to Boris Johnson and his jungle foe Nigel Farage?
The Minister had a nostalgic glint in his eye. ‘I’ve spoken to two of my colleagues today. They were among the first to come out to say Boris had to quit as PM. But now they’re both saying, ‘We made a mistake. I wish we could bring him back.’
A significant number of senior Tories now believe that they can, and they must.
On the day he left No10, Johnson bemused the assembled media pack covering his departure by cryptically observing: ‘Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough.’
A quick online search by those of us unversed in the Classics revealed that Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman who left office to tend his farm, until a desperate citizenry beseeched him to come out of retirement and save them from a marauding Aequi army.
And incredible though it may seem, equally desperate Tory MPs now believe the time has come to ask their own latterday champion to return to save their party from annihilation. ‘I’ve been sceptical of Boris,’ one Red Waller told me. ‘I was one of those who came out early to say he had to go, and I voted for Rishi. But we have to think outside the box.
‘Whatever you feel about Johnson, one thing no one can question is his effectiveness as a campaigner. And we need that now. We’re staring at total obliteration.’
A significant number of senior Tories now believe that they can bring former Prime Minister Boris Johnson back
While they detected a decisive mood shift against Rishi Sunak and his No10 operation, there was one significant obstacle preventing a dramatic Johnsonian return
Over the past month, Johnson’s allies have been testing the water. And while they detected a decisive mood shift against Rishi Sunak and his No10 operation, there was one significant obstacle preventing a dramatic Johnsonian return.
‘People kept pointing to the Covid inquiry, and fearing what that might throw up,’ one ally confided. ‘They were asking, ‘What skeletons are lurking there? Can Boris get through without opening up Partygate and all those other issues?’
The consensus among Tory MPs – even those not naturally sympathetic to Johnson – is that last week he came through his grilling broadly unscathed. In part that view has been shaped by a perception the inquiry is becoming a partisan political inquisition, rather than focusing on learning the practical lessons that would help deal with any future pandemic.
‘The whole thing is farcical,’ one MP complained. ‘The questioning is ridiculous. It’s become all about making the barristers famous, not getting to the truth.’ But there was also a feeling that despite some awkward moments, Johnson provided a broadly credible and reasoned account of his time managing the crisis.
‘He’s the only person who’s been in front of the inquiry who’s taken some responsibility and hasn’t tried to throw everyone else under the bus,’ a second MP observed.
Another significant factor is the mounting panic in Tory ranks over the surge in support for the Reform UK party (Ukip’s successor), and its charismatic standard-bearer Nigel Farage.
Today marks the end of his adventure in ITV’s celebrity jungle, and Conservative backbenchers are awaiting his return with mounting trepidation. ‘When Farage is back, he’ll be all over the airwaves,’ one says, ‘and he’s going to have Rishi and the rest of us in his sights.’ He will. Speaking to Reform UK officials, their strategy is clear, if unsubtle. They want to kill off the Conservative Party for good.
‘When Nigel gets back to Britain, he’ll start dominating the agenda,’ one predicted. ‘Within about six to eight weeks, we’ll be polling in the high teens, and the Tories will start to slip below 20 per cent. At that point, between five and ten MPs will realise the game is up and defect to us.
‘And then it’ll be game over. We’re looking at the last majority-Tory administration of our lifetime. We’re going to destroy them!’
Another significant factor is the mounting panic in Tory ranks over the surge in support for the Reform UK party (Ukip’s successor), and its charismatic standard-bearer Nigel Farage
It’s this apocalyptic scenario that is starting to drive Tory MPs into the arms of their former leader.
But there is a catch. Johnson is no longer an MP.
As one Tory said: ‘If Boris was still in the Commons, Rishi would be out by Christmas and he would be back in Downing Street for New Year. We’re not just looking at a General Election defeat – we’re facing an existential crisis.
‘So the issue is how we manage it. How do we get Boris back in time for the Election?’
Johnson’s allies are floating a number of suggestions.
One is that he is parachuted in at the next winnable by-election. Wellingborough, where sitting MP Peter Bone is facing a recall election despite his 18,000 majority, is touted as one possibility. But given the Tories’ recent defeats in seats with majorities in excess of 20,000, that route is perceived to probably be too high-risk.
Another suggestion is that a Johnson ally – the name of former Home Secretary Priti Patel has reportedly been discussed – would be installed as a caretaker Prime Minister after a defenestration of Sunak, with Johnson standing for a safe seat at the General Election.
‘There’s actually no rule that says the Prime Minister has to be an MP,’ one Boris supporter explained, ‘so the plan would be, we get in a caretaker PM, get Boris elected as leader, and then if we win the Election he comes back in to Downing Street.’
In reality, few MPs think even Boris Johnson has sufficient electoral magnetism to derail Sir Keir Starmer’s lumbering but relentless political bandwagon. Which is why some are now contemplating an even more drastic move. A Johnson/Farage dream ticket.
‘The Reform party is going to kill us,’ one MP conceded. ‘So we have to buy Farage off. The plan is we get him into the Lords, give him some key brief like that given to David Cameron – maybe even Home Secretary – then go to the country with the dream team.
‘It may not be enough to win, but it would definitely re-energise our base, shake up the debate and give Starmer something to think about.’
Inside an increasingly embattled and embittered No10, Team Sunak are clinging to the hope such a scenario will still not come to pass.
Despite another torrid week, they are adamant that when their Rwanda Bill is properly scrutinised, Tory rebels will see it as the best way of stopping the cross-Channel boats and transforming their electoral fortunes.
Controversially, they are preparing to give a commitment that even if the courts rule against the new treaty, or block individual removals, those judgments would be ignored.
‘Because of how the Bill is drafted, any court rulings would only be non-suspensive,’ one source insisted. ‘Ministers would ignore them. The legislation cannot be blocked by the courts.’
AND there are signs the Prime Minister will at least be given the opportunity to make his case. Despite speculation he could be defeated in next week’s second reading vote, most rebels I spoke to seem inclined to either abstain or grudgingly vote for the Bill, then seek to amend it in committee.
But Sunak’s respite is likely to only be temporary.
‘No10 are just trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes,’ one rebel says. ‘The Bill will not solve the problem. It’s nowhere near strong enough. As drafted, not a single person will be sent to Rwanda this side of an Election.’
And if that opinion becomes the settled judgment of his party, Rishi Sunak is doomed.
‘There are basically no moves left for him now,’ one MP said. ‘It’s only a matter of time now before people move. I don’t think Sunak will lead us into the next Election.’
Cincinnatus should not grip that plough too tightly. Unbelievable as it may seem, his people may be about to come calling.
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