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Boris Johnson goes full Trump in search of one last act

There is no cunning plan. No secret wheeze to secure Boris Johnson’s return to power. All there is is all there ever was, a hazy gut instinct that it is better to walk away now, keep his options open and see how the land lies in a few months. Johnson’s entire career has been a series of such gambles to delay reckonings or alter his narrative. Often they have paid off. But the former prime minister is running out of road.

The simple facts are that upon receiving a draft of the Commons investigation into whether he lied to parliament over lockdown breaches, Johnson saw the game was up. Even a Tory-dominated committee had found him guilty. He faced a sanction serious enough to raise the probability of a by-election. His parliamentary colleagues were not going to save him and, although a recent poll suggested he might win, he did not fancy the risk.

So he quit and cried foul. His accompanying statement was a self-exculpatory wail of petulant nihilism. It was a “kangaroo court”; he was a victim of injustice and prejudice, a “witch-hunt to take revenge for Brexit” and (a nod here to his future caucus) ultimately a plot to reverse it. It was a devious Labour and remainer coup. Any smear of his opponents within reach was deployed.

This was Johnson going full-Trump. Never mind that the committee investigating him — a committee of his peers — has a Tory majority; never mind that the evidence of his deceit is manifest and that there are seemingly details of more lockdown breaches emerging. This is the Trump playbook; the resort to the betrayal myth. He was cheated, not defeated. The will of people is denied. He alone is their true consul.

And to underpin this nonsense, an assault on his successor Rishi Sunak, with the message that only Johnson can be relied on to relight the flame of a “properly conservative government” (true conservatism being whatever he needs it to be). Shamelessly he blames Sunak for the lack of a US trade deal which he failed to secure and cowardice over housing policy which he demonstrated. The message is unavoidable. Johnson is still planning a next act.

But beyond this positioning and opportunism is there any real strategy? It is clear he will not fade quietly away. Even if he cannot return to the top, he intends to be a nuisance, sniping from outside parliament, drawing the limelight and bolstering his fantasy claims to vindication. Some Tories muse that the imminent sale of the Telegraph offers Johnson other interesting possibilities for mischief.

But there are only two paths back to the top and neither is easy. The really long shot is to build a new party around him amid general disgust with the existing ones. But the electoral system works against such plans. The more obvious route is for Johnson to step back before seeking another, safer Tory seat at the general election, putting himself in contention to return as leader in the event of defeat for the party.

The theory may be clear but the reality is immeasurably more complex. First he has to secure that seat. There are probably a number of constituencies which would take him, though a truly ruthless Tory leader has the levers to prevent this, not least by suspending him from the party and candidates’ list for the breaches exposed by the parliamentary investigation. It will be interesting to see if Sunak is prepared to be that openly brutal. He should reflect that his adversary would do it to him if the roles were reversed.

But even if Johnson were selected and elected, he would face a different landscape. His most fervent acolytes will have left Westminster; the shrewd tacticians he relied on may well have moved to other camps. Ambitious cabinet members, the Bravermans, Badenochs and so on, will not stand aside for him. And Tories will have to conclude that they risk going backwards with him instead of a fresher face. Much may depend on the scale of any defeat. But even if all the cards fell in his favour, Johnson will have to face multiple years in the thankless task of opposition, a post not ideally suited to his work ethic.

Above all that, there is one big difference. Once Johnson was an unknown canvas on to which voters could project their own hopes. He was a cheeky maverick who the conservative-minded found appealing, his personal failings deepening their sense that he would take on the establishment.

This time he is a known quantity, tried, tested and found wanting. Voters have experienced the dishonesty, amorality and, above all, chaos of a Johnson premiership. It should not be forgotten that his fall was precipitated by polls showing a collapse in public support.

Tories know he was gifted a huge majority and frittered it away. It is true that he faced shocks that would have taxed any leader but they were not what cost him his job. It was his character that brought him down, his laziness and fundamental lack of seriousness. If this is the end of his top flight career, his departure has been suitably opportunistic, comical, grubby and dishonest.

It is a cliché of politics that you should never bet against Boris Johnson. This time, it may finally be worth a flutter.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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