The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seething or celebrating? Prospect of Boris Johnson comeback divides U.K.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend a weekly Prime Ministers' Questions session in Parliament in London on July 13, 2022. (Frank Augstein/AP)
5 min

LONDON — As he stood in Britain’s Houses of Parliament for the final time, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, signed off with a colorful line. “Hasta la vista, baby,” he said, borrowing from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic “Terminator 2” movie. “Mission largely accomplished,” he told lawmakers, with a long pause. “For now.”

That was just three months ago.

As Britain’s current prime minister, Liz Truss, ends a disastrously short spell in office, the race is on once again — much to the disbelief of many Brits — to find a new leader of the Conservative Party.

And there’s at least a chance that the new tenant of No. 10 Downing Street could be the same as the old one. While Johnson has not yet formally thrown his hat in the ring, his backers and some right-leaning newspapers say his return would be in the “national interest” — a prospect that immediately generated intense reactions.

Few characters divide public opinion and stir the usually moderate temper of Brits like Johnson.

Race for British prime minister is on (again) after Liz Truss quits

The front pages of many U.K. newspapers Friday had already moved on from Truss. The Sun led with “Bojo: I’ll be back!” while the Daily Express asked: “He couldn’t could he …”

The Daily Mail readied its readers for a political scrap: “Boris v. Rishi: Fight for soul of the Tories,” referencing Johnson’s former finance minister and frenemy Rishi Sunak, who is widely seen as a front-runner to become the next prime minister.

Could the “big dog” really be let back out of the kennel, one morning radio host mused, using a Johnson nickname.

“No no no no no NO! Under absolutely no circumstances. Ever. Ever ever ever, d’you hear?” tweeted British actor Stephen Fry. “Are we seriously considering #BorisJohnson again? Is this really happening. … I actually hate living here,” wrote another online commentator.

The rumors of a comeback have sent some in his own party into fits of anger.

“Go back to the beach,” said Conservative Party grandee David Davis when asked about the possible return of Johnson, who was reported to be on vacation in the Caribbean.

“He has had his chance,” former Conservative cabinet minister David Lidington told British radio Friday. Others politicians threatened to resign from the party if Johnson returns and run as independent candidates.

Why Liz Truss resigned as U.K. prime minister: A guide to the chaos

The hashtag “#BorisOrBust” briefly trended on Twitter in the United Kingdom on Friday, while many loyalists in the “Bring Back Boris” camp on social media were elated at his rumored resurrection. “Come back Boss. The country needs you, you’ve had a long enough break,” tweeted Conservative lawmaker Marco Longhi.

“It’s very simple. If the Conservative Party want any chance in fighting the next General Election, there is only one man who can help them succeed at this mission,” wrote another online, referencing Johnson’s sweeping election victory in 2019 and ability to galvanize nontraditional Tory voters.

Johnson, who has reportedly been on a lucrative speaking tour in the United States followed by his Caribbean vacation, is due to fly back to London this weekend, his father Stanley Johnson told a morning talk show Friday. “He’s on a plane,” he added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said farewell to the House of Commons on July 20, while his party voted for his replacement. (Video: Reuters)

The process for becoming the next leader of the beleaguered Conservative Party has already been laid out, with each candidate needing to gain more than 100 votes from the party’s members of Parliament to progress to the next round. There are 357 Conservative lawmakers in office at the moment.

Given the high bar, it’s possible that only one individual secures that number, meaning that a new prime minister could be installed as soon as Monday, when nominations close.

As of Friday, political pundits and parliamentary insiders speculated that Johnson has already secured close to 140 backers.

If there is more than one successful candidate, then the hopefuls will be whittled down before the final two are put forward to the wider 170,000 members of the national Conservative Party. Officials, who want a speedy transfer of power, have said that the contest will be wrapped up no later than Oct. 28.

Truss implosion shows big change in financial climate

Delivering his resignation speech outside Parliament in July, Johnson made a curious classical-era reference to a returning Roman lawmaker, Cincinnatus, who gave up power and returned to his farm, only to be called back from his plow to calm the chaos.

Another of Johnson’s political heroes, Winston Churchill, also served as prime minister twice, from 1940 to 1945 and again after the end of World War II from 1951 to 1955.

Johnson’s time in office was marked by a string of scandals after voters were upset by his refusal to accept accountability following “Partygate,” when he was accused of holding office parties while the rest of Britain abided by severe coronavirus lockdown restrictions imposed by the government.

How many lockdown parties did Boris Johnson and staff attend? Here’s a guide.

He was the first serving prime minister ever to be fined by police for breaking the law, and he remains under investigation for lying to Parliament. He was ousted under pressure from his own lawmakers, many of whom lost confidence in him.

One Tory politician, Crispin Blunt, acknowledged that Johnson has “the most astonishing set of skills.” However, he told Sky News on Friday, “there are one or two weaknesses kicking around in that personality.”

Johnson, he said, is “not the character” needed to restore the party’s reputation amid the current crisis.

In the end, Liz Truss did not outlast a wilting lettuce

Many in the Labour Party and other political opposition groups are calling loudly for a general election rather than what they see as an internal Conservative Party attempt to cling to power.

The reverberations are already going global. One foreign government that suggested it could be happy for Johnson to reclaim the reins in London: Kyiv.

Johnson, who made three trips to Ukraine as prime minister since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, has had streets and pastries named after him in the embattled country and has received frequent praise for his solidarity from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The U.K.'s new prime minister

The latest: In his first speech as British prime minister, Rishi Sunak warned his country that tough economic times — and tough decisions — were ahead. The day also marked the end of Liz Truss’s tenure as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, after just 49 days in office.

Who is Rishi Sunak?: He competed against Truss to lead Britain’s Conservative Party after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his scandal-induced resignation in July. Loyalists point out that his candidacy received the most support from his parliamentary colleagues. And many of his economic ideas have turned out to be prescient, those backers say.

Why did Liz Truss resign?: Truss came to office with a vision for a low-tax, small government state. Her financial plan tanked the British economy and politicians from the ruling Conservative Party called on her to quit. According to new polling, only 10 percent of the country viewed Truss favorably.