It is October 2023 and Conservatives cram into the Manchester conference centre for their leader’s speech. Amid triumphal music, the prime minister approaches the podium, ruffles his shock of blond hair, offers his trademark sly smile and begins: “My friends, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted”.
Even after all that has happened, there are Tory MPs dreaming of the return of Boris Johnson. This shamelessly unserious figure, who knew how to win but not how to govern, remains the itch that many in his party cannot stop scratching.
And since knowing how to win suddenly seems rather urgent, a significant minority of Tory MPs still consider his return desirable. As important, so does he. The former leader is currently topping up his bank balance with well-paid speaking gigs, punctuating this activity with a rather prime ministerial Christmas message and inciting the odd rebellion against his successor, Rishi Sunak.
Of course, restoring Johnson would mark the Conservative party’s final surrender to intellectual and political frivolity and the odds remain strongly against it. But the possibility is a further destabilising factor for Sunak and his government as they struggle with multiple political and economic crises.
The reasons for not restoring Johnson should not need restating but the path to how it might happen is clear. Up to a quarter of Tory MPs regret both Sunak’s success and Johnson’s departure. Hooked on intrigue and in a state of permanent disaffection, many have convinced themselves that the high taxes imposed to restore the public finances show the current prime minister is no true Conservative.
For a while, this will not matter. Tories understand that the public wants an end to last year’s chaos. Even most of the 100-plus MPs so myopic as to have considered Johnson or Penny Mordaunt a superior choice for premier, see little alternative to sticking with Sunak for now in the hope that a period of calm competence will persuade voters to eschew a still unloved Labour alternative.
Sunak’s position relies not only on recognition that the party cannot keep changing leaders but also on showing that he can stave off, or at least minimise, defeat. Privately, most Tories still expect to lose the next election but they see modest hope in the fact that many disaffected supporters are in the undecided column, so might yet be won back.
The leadership’s template is John Major’s 1992 victory, which saw the Tories claw back polling deficits to snatch a last-minute win. But the current gap is far larger than Major’s. The outlook for the economy and public services looks grim. Local elections in May are unlikely to go well. There is every reason to believe Labour will maintain its opinion poll lead through 2023. Closing that gap would be a tortuous process even in the most benign circumstances. Sunak is relying on his MPs holding their nerve right down to the wire.
But patience is no longer a Tory virtue. Without visible improvement by summer, there may be enough Tory MPs ready for another “hey presto” solution. And Johnson has already shown by his clumsy dash back to the UK after the collapse of the Truss premiership that the call need not be especially clamorous for him to heed it.
Despite being a natural big-government Conservative, Johnson would ally himself with the party right demanding a return to lower taxes, a smaller state and more Brexit (whatever that actually means). Having let Sunak accrue unpopularity for stabilising the public finances, Johnson would promise a tax-cutting agenda.
And he has one advantage. Even the most deluded MPs can see that four leaders in two years might look a tad dysfunctional. Bringing back the original elected premier might be easier to defend. And what truer vindication of Johnson’s own sense of destiny than to have his party come crawling back — surely the greatest restoration since the return of the Stuarts?
Is this likely? No. But is it possible? Just, and that is enough to undermine Sunak’s leadership. There are plenty of obstacles, not least the lingering Commons investigation into Johnson’s own partygate conduct and, more significant, the public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. But he continues to haunt his party and well-known allies still agitate for his return.
This is a problem for the Tories almost comparable to the taint of hard-left for Labour. Sir Keir Starmer’s efforts to detoxify his party notwithstanding, Corbynism is still too recent a memory for some. Likewise the chaos, dishonesty and self-indulgence of recent years casts a shadow over Sunak’s efforts to restore his party’s reputation.
That a Johnson restoration is anything but inconceivable is a telling sign of malaise. This is a party that will not be serious again until it can show it has exorcised the ghosts of Johnsonism, cakeism and cranky economic theories.
Central to Sunak’s appeal has to be that, for all his flaws, he is a recognisably capable Tory leader. When you ask cabinet members what might secure victory for them, the answer is the first hints of economic recovery but also “competence” and “a period of good government”.
Sunak’s mission, then, is not merely to restore good governance to the country; it is to rebuild an appreciation of it in the Tories. The more vivid the dream of Johnson’s return becomes, the more certain it should be that the party requires a spell in opposition.