Boris Johnson was fighting on Sunday to get enough support to make a shock return as Britain’s prime minister after prominent figures on the right-wing of the Conservative Party coalesced around the man once accused of betraying him, Rishi Sunak.
Johnson was prime minister from 2019 to 2022 until he was forced to resign over a string of scandals. One-time backers are now urging him to stay out of the race to replace his successor Liz Truss, who only lasted six weeks in office.
Johnson is still facing an investigation into whether he misled parliament when he was last in power, and several former backers have said that would guarantee a return to the constant state of drama that accompanied his previous premiership.
“This isn’t the time for Boris’s style,” Steve Baker, an influential lawmaker on the right of the party, told Sky News. “I’m afraid the trouble is because of the privileges vote, Boris would be a guaranteed disaster.”
Britain has been thrust into a fresh political crisis after Truss was forced to stand down over an economic policy that sparked turmoil in financial markets, driving up borrowing costs and mortgage rates at a time of surging energy and food bills.
That has opened the way for a new leader, with Sunak, the former finance minister, Johnson and former defense minister Penny Mordaunt battling to get the support of 100 lawmakers to enter a ballot on Monday to become the next prime minister.
The prospect of another Johnson premiership is a polarizing issue for many in the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided after seeing off four prime ministers in six years.
For some Conservative lawmakers, Johnson is a vote-winner, able to appeal across the country with his celebrity image and brand of energetic optimism. For others he is a toxic figure who would struggle to unite the party and so might undermine efforts to build a stable leadership to calm rattled financial markets.
Sunak is well ahead in the race to secure lawmaker backing, with the BBC putting his support at 129 declarations, and Johnson on 53.
He first came to national attention when, aged 39, he became finance minister under Johnson just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Britain, developing a furlough scheme to support millions of people through multiple lockdowns.
He remains deeply unpopular with large parts of the party membership, however, after he quit Johnson’s government in July, helping to trigger a rebellion that brought him down.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the minister for Northern Ireland, said Johnson did have enough supporters to enter the ballot on Monday. “We do have the numbers,” he told Sky News. “That’s not an issue.”
Johnson was given a boost on Sunday when Nadhim Zahawi, who was briefly finance minister earlier this year, backed him to return to Downing Street.
“When I was Chancellor, I saw a preview of what Boris 2.0 would look like,” he said on Twitter. “He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He’d learned from those mistakes how he could run Number 10 and the country better.
“With a unified team behind him, he is the one to lead us to victory and prosperity.”
Johnson and Sunak met on Saturday evening, according to reports. The Times political editor said they had not agreed any deal, and that Johnson had told his supporters on Sunday morning that he wanted to a form a new government.
Mordaunt, with the declared backing of 23 lawmakers, said she was confident about the progress she was making and was very much in the race to win. She said a report that she had discussed pulling out with Johnson in return for the promise of a job was “completely false.”
Under the rules, if only one candidate passes the threshold of 100 lawmakers on Monday they will be declared prime minister. If more than one clears the hurdle, they will face a vote of around 170,000 signed-up members of the Conservative Party, with the winner announced on Friday.