Seven months since he announced his resignation as prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s shadow still looms large over the ruling Conservative party.
Despite being forced from office in disgrace and presiding over a massive decline in support for both himself and his party, Johnson is still attempting to influence government policy. His supporters say his interventions are the Conservatives’ last hopes at saving the party from decimation at the next election. His critics think he is not only undermining current PM Rishi Sunak, but, by reminding voters – with many of whom he is unpopular – of his existence, he is damaging his party’s electoral prospects.
A quick recap: Johnson was forced to resign after multiple ethics scandals made his position untenable. Those scandals included the notorious “Partygate” where Johnson became the first sitting PM to be found guilty of breaking the law by holding illegal gatherings during the pandemic lockdown. The final straw came for Johnson after it allegations emerged that his deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, had been sexually harassing party members while drunk. Johnson hired Pincher despite being aware of rumors about his conduct.
Johnson has spent much of the past week leaving Westminster guessing as to whether or not he is going to publicly come out against Sunak as he attempts to negotiate an agreement with the European Union to fix part of the 2019 Brexit deal. It is worth noting that Johnson himself negotiated and signed that deal, calling it “oven ready” during his election campaign that same year.
The part of the deal causing all the problems is the Northern Ireland Protocol, an arrangement that theoretically prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland, which left the EU along with the rest of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Both sides agree a border should not exist for fears of provoking tensions and violence. Northern Ireland has been largely peaceful since a 1998 accord ended the three-decades-long “Troubles,” in which more than 3,500 people were killed.
The UK has not implemented the protocol in full for fears it would damage trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Northern Irish pro-British unionists claim the protocol cuts the province off from the rest of the UK, while hardline English Brexiteers believe the protocol – and any deal Sunak might make to revive it – is essentially a capitulation to the EU, despite them supporting the deal in 2019.
Those hardliners, along with Johnson, believe that Sunak should specifically not abandon a piece of proposed legislation that Johnson introduced during his time in office, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which allows the UK government to rip up parts of the protocol. Critics say this would break international law. The constant noise and anticipation of a Johnson intervention has effectively killed talks of an agreement being reached with the EU and left many questioning Sunak’s strength to deliver as PM.
Johnson has also publicly implored Sunak to become the first Western leader to send fighter jets to Ukraine as the conflict marks its 12-month anniversary.
‘Fundamentally too selfish’
The vast majority of MPs that CNN spoke with are sick of Johnson’s “attention seeking,” as many of them described it. They all declined to speak on the record for fear of derailing Northern Ireland talks which, as many of them were quick to say, is a very dangerous situation, pointing to the shooting of a detective that took place in the province just this week.
“I just wish he would get on side and realize that his efforts would be best spent supporting Rishi,” said a former government minister who served under Johnson. “The next election is going to be hard enough without this distraction. Boris is still popular in certain parts of the country that we might lose seats. He should be up there campaigning, not teasing a return to the frontline.”
Another government minister who also served under Johnson is less optimistic about Johnson’s ability to help, even if he wanted to.
“He is fundamentally too selfish to want to help the people who he no doubt believes kicked him out of office unfairly,” the former minister said. “And he is unpopular enough that the prospect of him returning to the frontline could be one of the biggest motivating factors for people to vote against us.”
The polls back up this theory. A recent Ipsos MORI survey revealed that Johnson is still less trusted than either Sunak or leader of the opposition Keir Starmer. Poll after poll on the outcome at the next general election predicts the Conservatives suffering heavy losses. The dip in the Conservative’s fortunes can be traced directly back to the start of the Partygate scandal. Before that, Johnson was enjoying an unusually high level of support, thanks in large part to the UK’s successful Covid vaccine roll-out.
Johnson’s supporters don’t entirely believe the polls and challenge the narrative that he is responsible for the collapse in the Conservatives’ support, claiming instead it was due to a media obsession with Partygate.
One Johnson loyalist told CNN that “people forget he won us the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher” and believes he is still “a giant” in the eyes of the public. His supporters in the party welcome his interventions, with one saying of the Northern Ireland debate, still taking aim at the press, that the media “should welcome the widest possible debate on this major constitutional issue for our nation.”
Other Conservatives fear that the Johnson loyalists, who are mostly at the harder end of the Brexit-supporting spectrum, will learn the hard way that their assumptions are wrong.
“Most of his supporters in parliament have either already decided to stand down at the next election, probably because they know the writing is on the wall, or stand a very good chance of losing their seat,” the former government minister said.
A senior Conservative and former cabinet minister who worked in government with Johnson looks on with some degree of bewilderment. “I don’t really know what these hardline Brexiters are hoping to achieve. The public largely views Brexit as a mistake, so why double down on it so aggressively,” they mused.
There are an increasing number of Conservatives who look at the polls and think a heavy loss at the next general election is inevitable. They see one big advantage of Johnson returning to the frontline: that him lose losing might finally kill the myth that he is the “chosen one” and finally draw a line under the whole Johnson experiment.
It seems unlikely that Johnson will end his agitation from the backbenches, especially over policies that he believes might trash his legacy. However, the louder he shouts and the harder he stamps his feet, the biggest threat to the Johnson legacy could easily become Boris Johnson himself. Whether he brings down his party too seems a matter that doesn’t unduly bother many of his supporters.