In Britain, talk of Johnson's return to No 10 before he's even left

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, on Jan 31, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

He may be down and almost out, but the UK’s outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems determined to show he is not ready to ride off into the sunset.

In his typical theatrical style, Johnson ended his last appearance in parliament as prime minister last week by declaring: “Mission largely accomplished – for now” and “Hasta la vista, baby”, borrowing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase from the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Scandal-hit Johnson resigned as Conservative Party leader earlier this month, officially starting the countdown to the end of his premiership.

But Johnson’s allies and enemies are already talking about a possible Johnson sequel, even before he’s left Downing Street where he has lived and worked for three years.

Until that departure in September it’s business as usual for 58-year-old Johnson, who’s spending his final six weeks as caretaker prime minister enjoying the ride.

In recent days, Johnson has taken a flight in a RAF Typhoon fighter jet and visited Ukrainian troops being trained at a British military base in North Yorkshire, where he was photographed in a camouflage jacket inspecting an assortment of weapons.

Another photo opportunity came on Tuesday (July 26) when he presented Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the Sir Winston Churchill Leadership Award, via video link from Johnson’s London office.

Johnson has visited Kyiv twice in recent months and he is popular among Ukrainians. There’s a petition to offer Johnson Ukrainian citizenship to become prime minister there, but it’s more a gesture of appreciation than a realistic prospect.

There’s also talk of senior Tories backing Johnson to become the next Nato secretary general, a long shot bid that would no doubt be opposed by France.

Johnson’s past relationships would also factor. This week, Johnson defended attending a party in 2018 at the Italian mansion of Evgeny Lebedev, the son of Russia-born newspaper owner and former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev.

Johnson, who was foreign secretary at the time, attended the party without other UK officials after returning from a Nato meeting.

Boris Johnson takes ride – and selfie – in a Typhoon fighter jet during his last weeks as UK prime minister.
PHOTO: Boris Johnson

For now, most attention has been focused on the pair vying to be Johnson’s successor as prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister, and Foreign Minister Liz Truss.

It was Sunak’s resignation earlier this month, along with former health secretary Sajid Javid that triggered a series of events that left Johnson with no choice but to announce his resignation as party leader on July 7.

Truss, who has supported Johnson publicly, is ahead of Sunak in polls among members of the ruling Conservative Party.

Their contest will be decided by some 180,000 party members. The results will be announced on Sept 5, with Johnson departing the next day.

“Boris is supporting Truss why?” wrote Johnson’s former top aide-turned arch critic Dominic Cummings, who referred to Truss as a “human hand grenade” because she “blows up all she touches”.

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“[Johnson] knows Truss is as mad as a box of snakes and is thinking ‘there is a chance she blows, there’s another contest and I can return’,” Cummings wrote on Twitter on July 20.

Former Conservative Party leader William Hague warned that Johnson would be a “permanent nightmare” for the new leader, whoever it is.

“That he wants revenge on Rishi Sunak is already apparent, but if Liz Truss is elected, she will face the identical problem,” Hague wrote in The Times.

British investigative writer and Johnson biographer Tom Bower said Johnson had no intention of surrendering to defeat, unlike his predecessors.

“Like his hero Winston Churchill, he will embrace his Wilderness Years to earn millions of pounds by writing and making public speeches, rebuilding his political reputation and waiting for the opportunity to march back into Downing Street,” Bower wrote in the Sunday Express.

Tim Montgomerie, a former Johnson adviser who is the founder of the Conservative Party website Conservative Home, tweeted that Johnson had told aides he will be prime minister again “within a year”.

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Johnson still enjoys support among Conservative Party grass roots, despite his many scandals and missteps that embarrassed the government and contributed to his undoing.

The final straw for Johnson was that he had promoted Tory MP Chris Pincher to deputy chief whip, despite knowing about Pincher’s sexual proclivities, including groping men when he was drunk.

Johnson’s inconsistent responses to the Pincher scandal triggered a mass exodus of ministers from his government, ultimately resulting in his downfall.

Still, an estimated 10,000 party members have signed a petition calling for a vote on whether Johnson’s resignation should even be accepted.

“I don’t want to see the PM as a candidate in the race to be the next party leader. I want the membership to vote on whether we accept his resignation in the first place,” said Peter Cruddas, a Johnson ally and former Conservative Party treasurer who helped organise the petition.

“If we don’t – and I strongly expect that to be the case – it will be revoked, and Boris will continue in No 10.”

That also seems hopeful, even though many Conservatives were said to despair at the final choice of candidates to lead them.

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Truss, 46, and 42-year-old Sunak are wooing Conservatives with policies and statements meant to appeal to the Tory grass roots.

That includes getting tough on Beijing, as Sunak vowed this week by calling China Britain’s “biggest long-term threat”. Truss, who has been seen as the more hawkish of the two, spoke of “freedom-loving” Commonwealth nations being a “clear alternative to growing malign influence from Beijing”.

While they campaign, Johnson is making the most of the prime minister’s Chequers country retreat northwest of London, where he reportedly intends to host parties with wife Carrie.

After Johnson steps down, like predecessor Theresa May, he will remain a backbench MP, representing his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in northwest London.

Johnson still faces the outcome of an inquiry by parliament’s Committee of Privileges whether he deliberately misled the House of Commons about boozy parties in government offices including Downing Street, and broke lockdown rules.

If the inquiry finds Johnson deliberately misled parliament, he could face suspension.

Depending on the duration of a suspension, that could trigger a special election for Johnson’s seat, which he would be allowed to contest and likely win anyway.

Johnson, a former journalist and author, may pen his memoirs or work on his unfinished Shakespeare book.

There’s also consultancy and the lucrative public speaking circuit. Britain’s former prime ministers, particularly Tony Blair, have made a fortune from speaking at events.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.