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UK: A return for Boris Johnson? It’s not out of the question

When Boris Johnson resigned as Britain’s PM last month, he stood outside 10 Downing Street and reeled off a list of his achievements. That’s normal for departing British leaders, but in an unusual move, he also hinted at a possible return. He did so in typical fashion for a man who loves the classics, referencing the Roman statesman Cincinnatus, who left power only to be called back to office when his people were in trouble.
In the wake of Liz Truss‘s resignation, and with the Conservative Party in electoral trouble, the question has become more concrete: Far sooner than anybody had expected, could Johnson be back? The Times of London’s political editor, Steven Swinford, reported on Thursday that Johnson was expected to seek the leadership of the Conservatives again, a prospect that was welcomed by his supporters. Nadine Dorries, a minister in Johnson’s administration, said that if the party did not pave the way for his return, it should call a general election. “One person was elected by the British public with a manifesto and a mandate until January ’25,” she said on Twitter. MPs, she said, “must demand return of” Johnson.
Johnson won a hefty majority in 2019, giving his government a mandate from voters more direct than that enjoyed by Truss, or by any other leader the party could choose as her successor. At the same time, voters returned the party to power to implement a manifesto he led. Some of Truss‘s opponents in parliament said she had started to pursue policies that departed from that election manifesto. But there is a problem: Johnson’s tenure was punctuated by a series of scandals, including a fine he received for attending a coronavirus lockdown party in Downing Street. The party lost successive by-elections in Johnson’s final months in power and, in his final week, scores of ministers resigned, citing failures of his leadership. Given that conservative lawmakers are the ones who will decide on their next leader, most commentators say that their appetite to give the keys to Downing Street back to Johnson is likely to be limited. Bookmakers rate Johnson’s chances of returning to office at around 5%.
For all his vaunted electoral appeal, many voters see Johnson as a divisive figure. In addition, he is being investigated by a parliamentary committee over whether he misled lawmakers about lockdown parties. There is also uncertainty about whether his return to power would be welcomed by financial markets that have stabilised recently. Even so, some of his supporters on Twitter have begun calling for his return under the hashtag #BringBackBoris.
Political comebacks are rare in British politics, but not unheard-of. In the postwar period, Winston Churchill, whom Johnson has published a book about, staged a return as prime minister, as did Harold Wilson in the 1970s. The British news media reported this week that Johnson was on vacation in the Caribbean. But in his final speech to parliament as the leader, he used one phrase about his future that was easier to understand: “Hasta la vista, baby,” he said. “Mission largely accomplished – for now.”

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