Boris Johnson battles to win support in shock U.K. PM comeback bid

LONDON — Thousands tracked his flight back to the U.K. as he returned from a Caribbean vacation, and several lawmakers have tweeted “welcome back boss,” but on Sunday, Boris Johnson was fighting to get enough support to make a shock return as Britain’s prime minister.

A little less than four months after an unprecedented ministerial rebellion brought an end to his scandal-hit reign and he announced his resignation in a speech outside 10 Downing Street, speculation has been rife that he will once again try to win the leadership of his ruling Conservative Party and become the U.K.’s new leader by default.

“No politician in postwar political history has ever lost the leadership of their party at the same time as losing the premiership and come back to win both,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told NBC News Sunday in an email.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a Cabinet meeting alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in London in May.Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The party was forced to seek a new leader after Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, resigned Thursday following a disastrous and rapidly reversed economic plan that sent the pound plunging and her government into chaos. She served just six weeks in office.

Although Johnson has not thrown his hat into the ring yet, several lawmakers have called for his return, including some of his former Cabinet colleagues, among them Ben Wallace, the country’s defense minister, and former Interior Minister Suella Braverman.

While former Defense Minister Penny Mourdant announced her candidacy last week, Johnson’s stiffest competition will likely come from former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, who declared his intention to run on Sunday.

Both lost out to Truss at the last election, but Sunak has seemingly secured the support of prominent figures on the right wing of the party this time around.

“I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country,” Sunak, who would become the U.K.’s first prime minister of Indian origin if chosen, said in a statement. His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies arrived to help rebuild the country after the World War II.

Among those expressing their support for Sunak was Steve Baker, an influential lawmaker on the right of the party and one of Johnson’s previous backers, who is now calling for him to step aside.

“This isn’t the time for Boris’s style,” Baker told Sky News Sunday, adding that Johnson was still facing an investigation into whether he misled Parliament over Downing Street parties during Covid-19 lockdowns.

He could be forced to resign or be suspended from office if found guilty, which Baker said would be “a guaranteed disaster.”

Others have pointed out that Johnson’s three years as prime minister were plagued by scandals, and he was eventually forced to step down after more than 50 members of his government, including Sunak, resigned.

They quit amid allegations that Johnson failed to come clean about a lawmaker who was appointed to a senior position despite claims of sexual misconduct.

Former Conservative party leader William Hague said Friday that Johnson’s return would lead to a “death spiral” for the party.

Whoever wins will have to get nominations from 100 of the 357 Conservative lawmakers by Monday, meaning a maximum field of three.

If two candidates secure that level of support, they will go forward to a vote of the party membership, with the winner announced on Friday.

To those backing Johnson, including Foreign Minister James Cleverly, and former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, he is a vote-winner, able to appeal across the country with his celebrity image and brand of energetic optimism. His backers say he can get the 100 members of Parliament required to get on the ballot.

A selection of the front pages of British national newspapers showing the reaction the the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss in London on Oct. 21, 2022.A selection of the front pages of British national newspapers showing the reaction to the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss in London on Friday.David Cliff / AP

But for Anand Menon, a professor of politics and foreign affairs at Kings College London: “There is a tendency, not least amongst his supporters, but also in parts of the media to exaggerate Boris Johnson’s electoral appeal.

“A significant majority of the British people wanted him to resign as prime minister, and his approval ratings were historically low by the time he stopped being prime minister,” he said.

“So this idea that Boris is uniquely popular, I think is not necessarily true,” he added.

Bale was more forthright and less generous about Johnson’s prospects in his views.

“Returning Boris Johnson would seem to most British people as yet another sick joke played on the country by the Conservative Party in the last few months — and not one many of them would find in the slightest bit funny,” he said.

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