Analysis: Can Boris Johnson really return as Britain’s leader?

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For those watching from outside the UK, it might seem bizarre that Boris Johnson is being tipped to return as prime minister, just months after he was forced to resign in disgrace following a string of scandals.

That, however, is the main talking point in Westminster following Liz Truss’s announcement that she would resign after just 45 days in office.

Allies of Johnson believe that he is the only person who can unite the governing Conservative party and prevent an electoral wipeout that could put the party in opposition for a generation.

It’s correct to say that Truss has left something of a mess for her successor to sort out. Her botched economic plan made things worse for people who were already enduring the country’s worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, and her humiliating u-turns have left a party hopelessly divided and languishing in the polls.

So, why is Boris Johnson the answer?

For a start, there is the question even of his eligibility to stand.Johnson’s resignation came after a string of scandals made his position untenable. His downfall, most believe, began when he used the power he held as prime minister to protect a political ally who’d been found to have breached lobbying rules.

Then, reports that Covid-19 lockdown rules had been broken inside Downing Street, including by Johnson himself, began to emerge.

After initially denying this in parliament, videos, pictures and multiple accounts dominated British media for months. Eventually Johnson was fined by police for a breach of the rules, becoming the first prime minister to have been found guilty of breaking the law in office.

And Johnson’s fate was sealed when, on June 30, Johnson’s deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, resigned from his post after reports emerged that he’d groped two men at a private event. Pincher has not denied these allegations and admitted in his resignation letter that he’d had too much to drink.

Johnson attempted to cling on, but his refusal to leave led to a wave of Cabinet resignations that brought down his premiership.

All of that would appear to be disqualifying to future office. But there is nothing in British law that prevents a disgraced politician from making a comeback.

Beyond that, his supporters say that Johnson is the only candidate with a mandate to govern. Their argument is that Johnson led the party to a landslide victory in 2019, winning an 80-seat majority in parliament. That majority is his majority, they say.

Nadine Dorries, who served as a cabinet minister under Johnson, has been leading the charge on this argument: “One person was elected by the British public with a manifesto and a mandate until January ’25,” she tweeted. “If Liz Truss is no longer PM there can be no coronation of previously failed candidates. MPs must demand return of Boris Johnson.” Crowning anyone else would be anti-democratic, she said, adding that a general election should take place instead.

This argument, critics of Johnson believe, is a fantasy. They point to the fact that he left office with phenomenally low approval ratings and his credibility in tatters.

Johnson skeptics are worried that in the eyes of the public, he is the same man now as he was when he resigned in July. Bringing him back, they fear, would only further enrage the British public. They note that towards the end of his time in office, Johnson was booed at public events.

He still faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether or not he misled parliament. If found guilty, Johnson could be suspended from parliament, which would be astonishing for a sitting prime minister.

It’s hard to say just how likely a Johnson return is right now. CNN knows that he is taking the matter very seriously. However, it’s not clear that he has the 100 supporters among MPs required to go forward to the members’ vote. If he does make the final ballot, then it’s fair to say that Johnson would feel confident of a victory.

It has been a truly extraordinary few months in British politics and Johnson has played no small role in the psychodrama. His return to office could bring a relative sense of calm after the chaos of Truss. Or it could make everything worse.

The only thing to be sure of is that if Conservatives do re-install Johnson in Downing Street, they will be taking a huge gamble that could have profound implications for a general public that will have had no say in who leads them for the second time in a matter of weeks.