LONDON – In the end, all of Boris Johnson’s bluster couldn’t hide the facts: He didn’t have the votes to win the Conservative Party leadership contest and stage a political comeback just weeks after being forced out as prime minister.
The former Tory leader raced back from his Caribbean holiday to test the waters and try to garner the support of enough lawmakers to proceed to the next round. But as British media counted the number of declared supporters for Johnson, it cast doubt on whether he could cross the 100-vote threshold.
“Essentially the Boris Johnson bandwagon blew up,’’ said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “He really doesn’t seem to have attracted anything like as much support as he hoped he would.”
The 58-year-old Johnson is one of the most recognized — and divisive — figures in British politics. The self-deprecating court jester of a figure led the Conservative party to a thumping election victory in 2019 with his bombastic speeches and populist policies. But critics were repulsed by what they saw as a penchant for bending the rules and embroiling the party in a series of scandals that torpedoed its standing with voters.
Johnson’s three tumultuous years in Downing Street featured allegations that he gave lucrative government contracts to wealthy supporters, allowed a senior Cabinet minister to bully subordinates and improperly used political donations to redecorate his official residence.
He was finally brought down by suggestions that he mishandled sexual misconduct charges against a party official, which forced him to step aside after more than 50 Cabinet secretaries and lower-level officials resigned from his government.
But Johnson’s downslide was encapsulated in the long-running controversy over Downing Street parties in 2020 and 2021 that violated COVID-19 lockdown rules.
With an investigation into whether Johnson intentionally misled Parliament about those parties to get underway in coming weeks, the scandal hung over Johnson’s bid to return to power like a guillotine. If the inquiry by a committee of lawmakers finds Johnson in contempt of Parliament, he could be suspended from Parliament and face a recall election.
That’s not something Conservative lawmakers want as they try to unite the party, and the nation, behind the spending cuts and tax increases likely needed to restore the nation’s financial credibility after outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss' failed experiment with trickle-down economics.
“This all started because Boris Johnson was unable to run the government in the right way to keep it together … and to uphold the high standards of conduct that are necessary in the highest offices in the land,” former party leader William Hague told Times Radio on Friday. “So the idea that him returning is the solution — that ... could become a death spiral of the Conservative Party.”
Johnson’s supporters tried to shrug off such criticism. Instead they focused on the idea that their man made the right decisions when it mattered — leading Britain out of the European Union, rapidly rolling out vaccines to combat the coronavirus pandemic and being among the first to send arms to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
Just hours before Johnson bowed out, one of his most vocal supporters went on BBC television’s influential Sunday morning political interview show and claimed he already had the support of more than 100 members of Parliament.
“I have been speaking to Boris Johnson and, clearly, he is going to stand,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was a member of Johnson’s Cabinet. “There is a great deal of support for him.”
But media vote counts never supported the bluster.
As the leading candidate, Rishi Sunak, raced past with 150 backers, Johnson’s support stalled at 76, according to the Guido Fawkes website, which focuses on U.K. politics. The BBC counted just 57 Johnson supporters.
Matthew Parris, a columnist for the Times of London, saw the Boris boosterism as a strategy to scare off opposition.
“Momentum is being manufactured through creating an impression that Johnson is already on his way to victory,” Parris wrote Friday. “Mysterious reports on social media suggest he’s surging ahead among those MPs who are declaring — but the identities of some of these are undisclosed. They will (we’re assured) reveal themselves ‘later.’”
Johnson tried another gambit Sunday, trying to persuade Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, the third candidate, to drop out and support him as the only candidate with the broad appeal to unite the party at this difficult time.
Sunak and Mordaunt called his bluff.
“I think he thought the shock and awe campaign might persuade Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt perhaps to surrender to him, to the supposedly inevitable,’’ Bale said. “But they were much cleverer and realized that it wasn’t inevitable at all.’’
Johnson blustered on until Sunday night, when it became clear he couldn’t count on the party’s right wing for support. He threw in his cards after Suella Braverman and Steve Baker, who had backed him as leaders of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, gave their support to Sunak.
Alex Crowley, a one-time Johnson aide, said his former boss probably did have enough support to get on the ballot. But that wasn’t enough to overcome questions about whether he was the right person to unite the party months after dozens of lawmakers refused to serve in his government.
“There were lots of influential voices within the party who were saying, ‘actually you know, this isn’t the right time, this isn’t the right call,'” Crowley told the BBC. “And, you know, Boris’ natural instinct is if he can’t win, then he doesn’t want to compete.”
But don’t expect Johnson to fade from the political scene.
When Johnson left office in early September, he suggested he was planning to return to Downing Street.
First he left the House of Commons with the words “hasta la vista, baby,” conjuring images of Arnold Schwarzenegger who famously promised to return as The Terminator. Then he left Downing Street with an allusion to Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator who laid down his arms and went back to his farm before coming out of retirement to rule Rome again.
On Sunday night, Johnson hinted his return had been delayed, not canceled.
With the next general election expected in late 2024, there's likely to be another leadership contest in the coming months unless Sunak can quickly unite the Conservatives.
“I believe I am well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024,” Johnson said late Sunday.
“But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do,” he said. “You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament.”