Can Boris make comeback?

Can Boris make comeback?

​​So it’s goodbye from him. But Boris Johnson’s valedictory Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) felt more like an au revoir than a fond farewell.

By channelling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Hasta la vista, baby” catchphrase, he immediately set Westminster tongues wagging that what he really meant was – to coin another of the Terminator’s favourite sayings – “I’ll be back”.

One of his closest cabinet allies, culture secretary Nadine Dorries said as much to me in a Channel 4 News interview last week. “Never say never” was her somewhat cryptic response when I asked her if he could make a comeback.

It is theoretically possible. Mr Johnson has made clear he intends to stay as an MP, unlike former Conservative prime minister David Cameron, for example, who quit his Witney seat after losing the Brexit referendum, saying: “As a former PM, it’s very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous diversion and distraction from what the government is doing. I don’t want to be that distraction.”

Mr Johnson has other ideas. And both in the parliamentary party and in the membership, there are those who would genuinely like him back.

The standing ovation in the Commons yesterday was for many of his MPs simply a polite send-off (though Theresa May clearly felt sufficiently strongly about her successor that she temporarily mislaid her manners). But for others it was a passionately-felt show of support.

And already more than 2,000 Tory members have written to the party chairman to demand a say on whether Mr Johnson should carry on as leader when they vote next month.

Would it be electoral madness for the Conservatives to return him to Number 10? Possibly not, according to academic and pollster Matt Goodwin, who tweeted this week: “It’s kinda nuts that the Tories look set to replace somebody who has won twice in London, a referendum, the red wall and biggest majority since 1987 with somebody who has only ever won a safe seat that has been Tory since the 1950s. One of the biggest gambles in the party’s history.”

History also tells Mr Johnson that a second shot at the job isn’t impossible. His political hero Winston Churchill did it. And seeing as his cabinet’s parting gift to him was a set of Churchill volumes, he can no doubt spend his downtime on the backbenches figuring out how he made it work.

To the current prime minister’s detractors – and they are legion – this is dangerously fanciful stuff. They point out Mr Johnson resigned in disgrace, his duplicity laid bare on multiple occasions. So complete is his fall from grace, not one of his potential successors volunteered to give him a cabinet job.

But if a Johnson Premiership 2.0 is highly unlikely, it seems extremely plausible that he’ll not only try to preserve his legacy – such as it is – but also aim to steer his successor in what he considers the right direction. He gave the leadership contenders the benefits of his “advice” in his last Commons session yesterday.

That could make life very difficult for either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings persists in nicknaming him “trolley”. So his back-seat driving could prove similarly erratic.

Margaret Thatcher’s successors as Tory leader found it hard to escape her influence. I remember her taking to the stage at a party rally in Plymouth back in May 2001, a few years after New Labour’s electoral earthquake, and cracking a joke about some local billboard adverts for the film The Mummy Returns. The party faithful laughed, but the party leaders who followed her spent years trying to forge a new identity for the Tories.

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Similarly, while Mr Johnson’s domestic legacy is meagre compared to Lady Thatcher’s, he too casts an outsize shadow on the party he’s led for exactly three years on Saturday.

There’s plenty of fear and loathing among the Tory tribe in Westminster, with Penny Mordaunt’s allies voicing their concerns that the uncivil war between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss might be the end of the party as they know it.

And both putative prime ministers know the mantle they’re assuming will be uncomfortable from day one. Few political leaders have faced so many crises at once. If, as seems virtually inevitable, the new incumbent struggles on the economy, the climate crisis or a possible war with Russia, it’s easy to imagine MPs and members alike starting to reminisce about the man who’s been shown the door.

So it’s “mission largely accomplished – for now”, as Mr Johnson told the Commons. “Never say never” might come sooner than we all think.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of Channel 4 News

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