Liz Truss vs. Rishi Sunak? The Real Winner Is Boris Johnson
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda back in June, Boris Johnson was asked if he’d want to serve a second term in office. “At the moment, I am thinking actively about the third term,” he quipped. That would take him into the mid-2030s, he noted for any who couldn’t do the math.
There is little doubt that, even now, Johnson would like to keep the show on the road; and if that’s not possible, he wouldn’t rule out making a comeback of some kind. Tuesday night’s debate was suspended when host Kate McCann fainted. But whether Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak emerge as the next occupant of 10 Downing Street, they will spend the next two years looking nervously over their shoulder at the outgoing prime minister.
Because Johnson isn’t going away. He’s bitter about a defenestration that he regards as an unjust betrayal; and there are plenty of Conservatives who sympathize. The Tory donor and former Conservative Party Treasurer Peter Andrew Cruddas (known as Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch) is a Johnson supporter who has been petitioning for a membership vote on the decision by MPs to force him out of office. Cruddas suggested Johnson was supportive of the petition, which reportedly garnered more than 10,000 member signatures in a week.
It’s unlikely that effort will get anywhere, but even the remote prospect that Johnson might return at some point will give him influence among Tories. If Johnson still has strong grassroots support in the party — even after all the scandals — he can be an asset or a threat to the next Conservative leader.
When Johnson said he’s thinking about being around into the 2030s, his party had just lost two by-elections, prompting the resignation of party chair Oliver Dowden. Johnson himself saw 148 of his own MPs vote against him in a confidence vote. He was unbowed then, and everything we know about his long career suggests he could take another stab at a public role once sufficient time has passed for the “herd,” as he referred bitterly to his own MPs, to come to regret their decision to get rid of him.
Whatever points Sunak and Truss score against each other in the leadership debates, Johnson is a beneficiary. Both candidates paid homage to his successes. And it appears he’s now moving into his rehabilitation phase. It wouldn’t be the first time. From losing earlier jobs to dropping a leadership bid in 2016 when Michael Gove withdrew his support, Johnson is the embodiment of Churchill’s maxim that “success is never final; failure never fatal.”
Johnson can be expected to focus for a while on monetizing his fame through book deals, newspaper columns and speaking engagements. It’s often been said that he’s woefully short of the funds required for his rather large family and took a substantial pay cut when he got the job of running the country. Whatever he does, though, Johnson will be visible — appealing to an audience is his superpower, after all. He may be the Tory Party’s ultimate backseat driver.
In the short-term, his presence works to Truss’s benefit as the candidate whom Johnson favors. Given his deep bitterness toward the former chancellor over the resignation that was seen to trigger his downfall, a Sunak premiership would leave the party more divided and susceptible to Johnson sniping from the sidelines. But this also suggests that Truss — who has boasted of being willing to challenge reigning orthodoxies — is more of a continuity candidate than she’s willing to admit. She will be expected to carry the torch for the right of the party with Johnson ready to step in if things go wobbly.
But what of his party? Johnson wouldn’t be the only leader to haunt — or even dominate — his party after being kicked out of office. Benjamin Netanyahu, Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump are all politicians on the right who have lost office amid controversy and scandal, but either regained power or held their party hostage. A 2021 study published in the European Journal of Political Research found that successors to “strong” leaders tend not to last long, suffering more electoral losses than average. Their parties struggle to perform well in the absence of the charismatic leader who was forced out.
In other words, leaders such as Johnson often leave their parties worse off. That may be because there is less real policy debate or opposition to the leader’s preferences. Strong leaders may also overpromise or win elections on the basis of personality over policy. It can leave their party struggling to find its feet with voters. John Major, the successor to Margaret Thatcher (the Tory hero whom both Sunak and Truss invoke constantly), did win his election in 1992, but the party devolved into in-fighting, cycled through three leaders and lost three successive elections after that.
The standing ovation Johnson received after his last Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly square-off with the opposition leader, suggests Tories are torn about leaving their biggest election winner since Thatcher out to pasture. For his signoff, the prime minister borrowed a line from the Terminator: “Hasta la vista, baby,” he told MPs. You just know he was thinking of that other Arnold Schwarzenegger zinger: I’ll be back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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