The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative leadership race is making some Tories miss Boris Johnson

Larry, a cat, lies on a sidewalk before moving vans parked outside No. 10 Downing Street in London. (Hollie Adams/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

MANCHESTER, England — Boris Johnson simply had to go, the Tories — lawmakers and party members alike — agreed. So they gave their once beloved leader the old heave-ho.

But politics is strange, isn’t it?

The Conservative Party rank-and-file who demanded the mop-headed British prime minister resign in July are no longer so sure, now that they’ve had a good sniff at the candidates to replace him.

Maybe they were… too hasty?

Boris Johnson did WHAT?

It’s only August and the Tory grass roots already miss Johnson. (No matter that he is still more or less still in Downing Street as a kind of holiday-making caretaker PM until early September.)

This longing, this regret, has already been given a name by British pollsters: “Boris nostalgia.”

Nostalgic in the sense that the remorseful might be remembering Johnson the backslapping vote-getter, the Mr. Brexit of 2019, speaking to arena crowds about how Global Britain was going to rock — and not Johnson the serial prevaricator of 2022, who was deemed unfit to lead.

But this feeling? It’s palpable.

A few weeks ago, the survey group Opinium Research published a remarkable poll that found that Conservative Party members, overwhelmingly, preferred Johnson to the two candidates now competing to replace him: 63 percent wanted Johnson to remain leader of the party, and therefore prime minister, compared to 22 percent for Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who appears to be the front-runner for the top job.

It was even worse for former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak: 68 percent preferred Johnson; 19 percent would take Sunak.

Boris Johnson's singular achievement was Brexit. How's that going?

Those were some pretty astonishing numbers, or depressing, depending.

“So over the last couple of months of this leadership contest, we’ve gone from party members thinking Boris should resign, and now, these very same people are saying, overwhelmingly, that they prefer Boris Johnson to the alternatives,” said Chris Curtis, Opinium’s head of political polling.

Curtis offered two explanations: “One is that people have kind of forgotten or moved on from how bad it got for Boris in his dying days in office,” he said. “But I think the more important reason is this lack of enthusiasm for the two main leadership candidates.”

Johnson has spent most of August on one vacation or another. He has not endorsed a replacement. When some zealous supporters threatened to try to get his name on the ballot — to succeed himself, essentially — he told them to desist. Johnson has been mum about his immediate plans for the future, though many expect him to write books, give speeches and burnish his legacy.

He has mostly stayed far away from the hustings, the town-hall style events staged around the country for the 200,000 dues-paying Conservative Party members, the 0.3 percent of the adult British population who will decide who the next prime minister will be.

“People are fickle, aren’t they?” agreed Simon Berry, 49, a management consultant, at the ninth hustings in Manchester.

“I think Boris called us ‘a herd.’ And it is true, a few months ago, it was hard to find a Tory who wanted Boris to stay. But now, there appears to be some buyer’s remorse,” Berry confessed.

His audience neighbor Charles Baumber, a 19-year-old university student, said neither Truss nor Sunak could match “Boris on his best day.”

But Berry pointed out: “We can’t compare Boris on his best day to the Boris at the end.”

“True,” Baumber said.

Boris Johnson idolized Churchill. The next British PM might look to Thatcher.

Still, regrets. The Tories have a few.

Joe Rice, 71, a retired welder, attended the gathering in the northern city of Manchester. He is from nearby Bolton, which had voted for the center-left Labour Party for generations, until Johnson helped to flip the region to the center-right Conservative Party in a landslide election in 2019.

“I confess I wanted Boris to stay,” Rice said. “I think we will miss him.”

Rice suspected that Johnson was undermined by opponents — inside and outside of the party — still sore about leaving the European Union.

“He got Brexit nearly done,” said Rice. “And they hated him for it.”

“It’s almost Shakespearean,” said Teresa Hurst, 84, a retired waste disposal manager.

“Boris was Boris,” she said. “Done in by his own fatal flaws.”

Rob Reynolds, 36, a civil servant, said Conservative Party members in Northern England have campaigned long and hard, knocking on doors each election, to try to turn seats from red Labour to blue Conservative.

When the “Red Wall” cracked in 2019 and Johnson helped to create an 80-seat majority in parliament, his many fans hoped he would remain in power for years and years.

“I was out on the doorsteps and I can tell you that those Labour supporters who switched? They voted for Boris and Brexit and not the Conservative Party,” Reynolds said. “They blinking loved Boris.”

“It is quite a scary thing to do, to get rid of Boris, because he was a proven winner,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London who studies the Conservative grass roots.

Bale agreed that this “defenestrator’s remorse,” as he called it — the tossing of Johnson out the window — might be as much psychological as political.

“Maybe they feel guilty about what they have done,” he said.

But he pointed out that the Tories have often been rather ruthless about ousting their leaders, when they sense that the no longer can win elections. They chucked Winston Churchill, after all, and Margaret Thatcher, too. (Labour has also shed its standard bearers, most recently Jeremy Corbyn, who was not only knocked out of the leadership but kicked out of the party altogether).

At these hustings, there was a sense in the audience that they always knew that Johnson was a bit of bounder. Not a detail man, certainly. “But he got the big things right” is a common refrain.

At another hustings event in Eastbourne on the south coast of England this month, retired hospice nurse Browen Lightfoot reminisced: “People really loved Boris, but he made a lot of silly mistakes.”

Silly, meaning? She meant all the parties held at 10 Downing Street during the many months of covid lockdown, which resulted in 126 fines for rule-breaking to 83 individuals, including penalties for Johnson and his wife, Carrie.

It’s important to remember this is no general election. In a parliamentary system, the Conservatives are still in control — and just switching leaders.

The historically diverse Conservative leadership election

The Tory membership represents only a thin slice of the electorate — and in comparison to the general population, it’s more affluent, older, and conservative, likelier to favor lower taxes and a smaller state, and less anxious about climate change. The members are mostly from London and the south of England — and 95 percent White.

No matter how much they might miss him, the Tories are realists. There is no turning back.

“I didn’t like the way he was turned out, but it is done,” said John Burke, 77, a retired architect who attended the Eastbourne hustings.

Did he imagine a comeback for Johnson? Burke laughed.

“Why would he ever want to return?” Burke asked, “He was stabbed in the back.”