Boris Johnson has been dogged by scandal throughout his career, but his election-winning record could tempt MPs to gamble on him once again.
21 October 2022
Boris Johnson’s chance to emulate his political hero Winston Churchill and return from the wilderness has come sooner than he might have expected.
Churchill spent a decade out of office between the Conservative defeat of 1929 and his recall to lead Britain through World War II in 1939, and then another six years after 1945 before being elected for a second term.
Mr Johnson may end up waiting just seven weeks.
It had already been widely rumoured that the controversial former Prime Minister believed he could make a comeback, and his final speech in Downing Street appeared to hint as much with its reference to Cincinnatus, who was recalled from his farm to save ancient Rome from crisis.
But to achieve that, Mr Johnson will have to convince Conservative MPs to take another chance on a man whose career has been dogged by scandal.
Even before becoming Prime Minister, he had been accused of racism and homophobia, as well as multiple affairs, and was forced to apologise to Parliament for failing to properly declare outside earnings totalling more than £50,000 on several occasions.
But somehow he seemed to continue defying political gravity, rising ever upwards from MP to Mayor of London to Foreign Secretary and, eventually, into Number 10 itself.
He even built up a reputation for being able to win in unexpected places, starting with his bid for the London mayoralty in 2008.
Although not quite the Labour stronghold it is now, the capital was still a daunting prospect for a Conservative after two terms of “Red” Ken Livingstone, but Mr Johnson managed not only to win but then retain the mayoralty in 2012.
And then, in December 2019, his promise to “Get Brexit done” saw him lead the Conservatives to a landslide victory, picking up swathes of traditionally Labour territory.
But even with his majority, Mr Johnson was confronted by significant challenges.
He did manage to secure a Brexit deal, but his decision to reopen the question of the Northern Ireland Protocol suggested Brexit was not “done” while also opening him to accusations he was reneging on an agreement with the UK’s international partners.
Then came the pandemic, derailing many of his plans to “level up” the country and seeing him admitted to an intensive care unit as he was struck down with Covid.
MPs became rebellious as he broke manifesto pledges on tax rises, U-turned on social care, backtracked on rail promises and continued to impose Covid restrictions that some felt draconian.
And still scandal dogged him. Just as he appeared unassailable – leading in the polls, presiding over a successful Cop26 and a triumphant Tory conference – it all started to fall apart.
First came the Owen Paterson affair and then the revelations of Partygate that saw him become the first Prime Minister to receive a criminal penalty while in office, before finally the Chris Pincher scandal brought an avalanche of ministerial resignations and his exit from Downing Street.
In the brief period since his resignation, Mr Johnson has largely kept a low profile. Apart from a tribute to the Queen and continuing his steadfast support for Ukraine he has said little publicly.
But the failure of Liz Truss’s premiership has presented him with an early opportunity to return to the political limelight.
If he can pull off a comeback, he will face a very different prospect from the one that greeted him in 2019.
The Conservatives are far behind in the polls, the UK is gripped by an economic crisis and the prospects for delivering the sort of improvement in public services he once promised are limited.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson himself is still under investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee, which is looking into whether he misled the House during Partygate and could at any moment recommend that he is suspended from Parliament because of it.
Polling also suggests he is still deeply unpopular with the public at large, although not as unpopular as Ms Truss and he has significant support among Tory members.
If he is to return to Downing Street, he will need the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs. It is they who must now decide whether to gamble on the scandal-prone leader once again.