“Where to now, St Peter? If it’s true I’m in your hands I may not be a Christian But I’ve done all one man can So where to now, St Peter? Show me which road I’m on” Elton John (lyrics by Bernie Taupin), Madman Across The Water, 1971
Welcome then, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – as of 12 June 2023 the latest in a long line of Crown Steward and Bailiffs of the Chiltern Hundreds. (This and the similar Steward of the Manor of Northstead, which ironically Johnson previously held, being legal fictions to allow UK MPs to resign). In the almost words of Monty Python: “Bold brave Sir Boris/Sir Boris ran away”.
Having doubtless calculated that MPs including those from his own party would vote to ratify the privileges committee report finding that Johnson had ‘misled the House’ (or ‘lied to parliament’ to use less polite language) he chose to resign his seat on the evening of Friday 9 June 2023. What does the future hold for Johnson and ‘Johnsonism’, if there is such a thing?
First option: a return in this parliament
The same afternoon as Johnson resigned as an MP, so too did his prominent supporter Nadine Dorries (or at least, she said she would sometime soon). Conspiracy theories soon began circling that this was no coincidence and that Johnson was intending to stand in the by-election in Dorries’ Mid Bedfordshire seat. Chris Bryant MP (who recused himself as chair of the privileges committee) observed that the verdict of the committee would still stand and that if he did stand again and win, Johnson could just be suspended again.
Second option: a return at or after the next general election
Despite pleading poverty and claiming he was unable to get by on an MP’s salary, Johnson recently purchased a grand mansion in Henley with cash. Henley was Johnson’s old seat before he resigned to become mayor of London and the incumbent John Howell has announced he will not contest the next general election. Howell had a respectable majority of just over 14,000 at the 2019 general election and the obvious conclusion was that Johnson intended to stand for his old seat once again.
Some obstacles remain however. Even before the privileges committee report is published Johnson is electorally toxic. It would require both a local Conservative Association to adopt him as their candidate (not impossible given his ongoing popularity with the party grassroots) but also for current party leader Rishi Sunak to approve of Johnson as a candidate. Given the ongoing rift between them it seems unlikely Sunak would want Johnson back, especially given the unusually strong criticism Sunak publicly levelled at Johnson.
The fact that a House of Commons with a Conservative majority of 66 was unlikely to save Johnson from a recall petition even though (despite Johnson’s claims that he had no opportunity to defend himself against the privileges committee recommendations) he could have spoken in the debate also suggests most Conservative MPs now want Johnson gone. Despite his boasts he could only muster some 22 rebel Conservatives to vote against Sunak’s Windsor framework in March 2022 which again speaks to the limited support he has within the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Quite apart from if he could, the question should be why he would stand again. Even if he could regain leadership of the Conservative Party it’s likely he wouldn’t win the 2028 general election. Being leader of the opposition is a difficult task requiring hard work and application – qualities alien to Johnson.
Third option: Johnson allies with Nigel Farage and Reform UK
Shortly after Johnson announced his resignation as an MP, Nigel Farage hinted that he could approach Johnson to “protect their Brexit legacies”. This possibility might seem attractive to some but it’s difficult to understand why Johnson would be interested. Whilst Reform UK did win some council seats in the 2023 local elections, the influence of both the Brexit Party (as was) and its leader Nigel Farage have waned since the UK formally left the EU in 2020.
Farage has never won a parliamentary seat and the Brexit Party also failed to win a single seat in 2019. Johnson isn’t interested in playing for minor places in an election and deep down he probably knows Brexit isn’t the electoral draw it once was, so whilst not impossible, I don’t rate this as a serious prospect.
Fourth option: Johnson becomes a right-wing Youtuber/podcaster/talk show host
This was suggested in a Labour Social YouTube livestream on the evening Johnson resigned. The question again is why Johnson would be interested – there are undoubtedly deep-pocketed right-wing interests who would subsidise such a venture but building an audience takes effort which Johnson isn’t known for. The other question is where that audience would be; it seems hard to imagine the UK paying him much interest and the US market is already crowded. I don’t think this likely either.
Fifth option: milk the US after dinner speaking circuit
It would appear the speaking circuit is a nice little earner for Johnson, with reports of over £1mn earned in two months since he left Downing Street and £2.5mn of advances at the start of 2023. The fees Johnson commands on the speaking circuit as a ‘proven winner’ are believed to be the reason he dropped out of the Conservative leadership race in October 2022 after his advisers pointed out to him that losing the 2024 general election would damage his earning power. Money evidently matters almost as much to Johnson as power, so I fully expect to see him go down this route.
Johnson compared to Trump
There are legitimate fears that Johnson could hang around the UK political scene and perpetuate his own version of Trump’s big lie – in Johnson’s case that he was undemocratically forced out of parliament by a ‘kangaroo court’ with no opportunity to defend himself. The key difference between Trump and Johnson is that Trump still has a strong grip over the US Republicans because the US public has not yet seen through him – although Trump’s recent indictment for stealing classified documents may yet influence this.
By contrast the UK public has seen through Johnson. He was exceptionally unpopular when he resigned as prime minister in 2022 and ‘word clouds’ compiled from polling about him are decidedly unflattering.
Conservative MPs will not be unaware of this. They are also aware that Johnson lost the safe seats of North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham well before the first Partygate stories broke. The image that Johnson is still keen to project, of the ‘proven election winner’ is very much reliant on faith over facts.
The future of the Johnson fan club
For the progressive-minded individual right-wing Twitter has been either incredibly tedious or utterly hilarious depending on what mood you happen to be in. The same talking points are endlessly recycled in a studious and carefully choreographed display of Deliberately Missing The Point And Ignoring The Damning Evidence ever since the first Partygate photos were revealed.
I’ll spare the reader the anguish but if the mood takes you, look at the feeds of Nile Gardiner, The Bruges Group, Sophie Corcoran and David Campbell-Bannerman. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to conclude that this activity is coordinated. What happens to this fan club now is an open question – perhaps it will migrate in part to other right wingers in the Conservative Party who are jostling for position in the leadership contest that will inevitably follow should Sunak lose the general election.
The main problem for both them and the Conservatives as a whole is that Johnson has no obvious successor – he purged the party of moderates who opposed his charge towards a no deal Brexit and in doing so (deliberately) removed much of the talent. After all, if you are at best mediocre yourself you need to ensure nobody else ranks above you and threatens your position by making you look bad. It kept him in power for at least six months after his ‘sell by date’.
They think it’s all over
Johnson’s political career is over. It was all but over before the privileges committee reported. Doubtless many progressive thinkers would like to see him held further to account for the damage he has done to the country but in the absence of Trump-style revelations this seems unlikely. He can instead enjoy a life of being paid millions to deliver the same speech each time to wealthy American businessmen and maybe, just maybe, that’s a fair trade for no longer being involved in UK politics to any serious extent. “They think it’s all over… It is now.”