(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s success in securing a new settlement for Northern Ireland with the European Union has killed off any lingering prospects of a return to UK power by Boris Johnson, Conservatives said.
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In the run-up to Sunak’s announcement of the deal on Monday, the former premier refused to back his efforts, instead pointing to the legislation he proposed as prime minister as the “best way forward” to resolve the post-Brexit standoff. But so far, Sunak’s agreement has been well-received by Tory members of Parliament, including some ardent Brexiteers.
Johnson’s stock has never been lower in the parliamentary party than it is now, Conservative MPs said Wednesday. One joked it was time to sell stocks in Johnson, while another said any comeback was now dead in the water. The MPs requested anonymity talking about internal party dynamics.
It’s a remarkable reversal in Johnson’s fortunes. Less than 18 months ago, his backers were speculating about a decade in power. In October, just seven weeks after leaving office, he secured the nominations of 110 Tory MPs in the race to succeed Liz Truss, enough to put him in a run-off against Sunak if he’d decided to continue.
Even last week, his backers were still trying to talk up the possibility of the 2019 general election-winner swooping in to lead the ruling party if the Tories perform badly at local polls in May.
In a speech in London on Wednesday, Johnson said he was focusing on his writing. “I think it is very, very unlikely that I will need to do anything big in politics again,” he said. He took the time to make some sideswipes at Sunak.
Read More: Johnson Says Voting for New Brexit Deal Will Be Difficult
“When I stepped down we were only a handful of points behind the Labor Party” he said, referring to the fact that his party trails Labor by more than 20 points in the most recent polls.
Supporters of Johnson point to his personal appeal and the fact that he delivered the party an 80-seat majority in 2019. Those are reasons to consider reinstating him as the Tories slide towards electoral defeat, they say. Sunak must call a vote by January 2025 at the latest.
But speculation around a comeback has all but vanished since Monday, when Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced their deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
One minister said Johnson could have commanded some support from pro-Brexit Tories had he come to Parliament on Monday, when the premier set out his plans in the House of Commons. Johnson could have owned the moment and claimed he paved the way for the deal. Instead he skulked away, the minister said.
A second minister said if Johnson rejected Sunak’s deal, he would have to align himself with a minority grouping of Conservative MPs in the European Research Group who are currently considering whether to back the prime minister. Those MPs no longer reflect anything like mainstream thinking in the party, the minister said, so Johnson would be making a mistake.
Johnson works best when the battalions are massed for him, the minister said. The ERG is no longer the battalion it once was at the height of the parliamentary Brexit battles, the minister said, joking that it is more like the army catering corps.
Sunak ditched Johnson’s flagship bill, which would have unilaterally ripped up parts of the current Brexit arrangements with the EU, and took a more emollient approach to negotiations.
One MP said it showed the era of Donald Trump-style bombastic populism was over. Sunak’s measured approach was a reminder of what statecraft should be, the Tory said, predicting Sunak would be safe in post until the general election.
According to pollsters YouGov Plc, Sunak’s progress on Brexit is likely a major reason behind his rising ratings over the last two weeks, with the number of people holding a favorable view of the prime minister has seen a seven point increase, from 27% in mid -February to 34% now. Nevertheless, Sunak’s net favorability of score -21 still trails Labor rival Keir Starmer’s (-11) by double digits.
Johnson’s supporters haven’t given up, however. Some predict he may lead the party again if Sunak loses the election to Labour.
The Johnson ally said the former premier still commands significant support in the parliamentary party especially as he delivered on his manifesto pledge of getting Brexit done. The debates about the EU divorce are not over yet and Sunak must deliver on reducing inflation, equalizing opportunities nationwide and halting illegal immigration if he is to maintain the support of his MPs, the ally said.
–With assistance from Ellen Milligan.
(Adds comments from Johnson in sixth paragraph)
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