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Boris Johnson Is Still Afloat

This comeback attempt proved abortive, but it revealed a will to power fully intact. Rishi Sunak had better watch out.

Boris Johnson
Ben Pruchnie / Getty

Rishi Sunak, not the floating man of chaos Boris Johnson, is Britain’s next prime minister. Sunak is calm, capable, controlled, and very, very rich: everything Johnson is not. Johnson’s extraordinary attempted comeback—in a bid to regain the leadership of the governing Conservative Party and the prime ministership—has ended in humiliation. Yet I’m not convinced we’ve seen the last of him.

On Saturday, Johnson flew back to Britain from his Caribbean holiday in the Dominican Republic in the hope of somehow resuming his premiership as if it hadn’t all blown up in disgrace a few months ago. Just six weeks after formally handing power over to the ill-fated Liz Truss, Johnson seems to have believed he could walk back into Downing Street like a latter-day Napoleon escaped from Elba to take command of his old troops, who, having previously mutinied, would now renew their pledge of allegiance to l’Empereur. Then came his Waterloo, but without the romance. In fact, the denouement ended up being a bathetic and banal affair: He flew home, hit the phones, discovered he didn’t have the numbers, and quit.

Of course, Johnson claimed he did have the numbers and could have become prime minister this week if he’d really wanted to. In other words, he hadn’t actually lost to his onetime protégé. Sunak, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, will today be appointed Britain’s new prime minister—a remarkable career trajectory now threatens to eclipse Johnson’s.

Sunak is a Brexit-supporting, second-generation British Indian, a practicing Hindu, and a multimillionaire tech bro with dreams of turning Britain into a low-tax, globalized Silicon Valley outside the European Union. Think of him like a more right-wing British Macron. Unlike Johnson, Sunak has the discipline and managerial know-how to make a fist of this job—at least potentially, though given the tumultuous past few years under Johnson and Truss, he starts from a weak position. The Tories in Parliament are deeply split and at their most unpopular in 30 years, seemingly headed for electoral oblivion whatever they do.

By claiming he did have the numbers to beat Sunak, Johnson is posing as the bigger man. In a typically bombastic statement, he portrayed his decision to pull out as a grand gesture of statesmanship. “There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members—and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday,” he declared, unabashed. “But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do.” Why so, you might ask? That is not the kind of thing that Donald Trump would say. “You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament,” Johnson explained. And this he did not have, he implied, because the dastardly Sunak (whose resignation from the cabinet back in July had precipitated Johnson’s own exit) would not fall in behind him. Unlike Johnson himself, we were to infer, Sunak had put his ambitions before party and country. And then the kicker: “I believe I have much to offer, but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

Evidently, Johnson thinks there will be a right time. “Death is nothing,” Napoleon declared, “but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.” This is where we’re at now with Johnson. His first political death was almost bearable for him. He had—in his mind, at least—“came, seen, and conquered,” only then to be assassinated by those tiresome, moralizing little people who would one day regret having removed him from power. There was a certain glory in being denied his time in power not by defeat at the ballot box but by party machinations.

But now he has tried to overturn that judgment of his peers—and lost. He has been bested. He must live defeated without glory, something that will burn away at his very self. For Johnson, I think such a defeat will be intolerable.

Unfortunately for Sunak, there is no Saint Helena equivalent on which to exile such an adversary. He will have to live haunted by his old boss. “Although he has decided not to run for PM again,” Sunak said on Sunday night, “I truly hope he continues to contribute to public life at home and abroad.” “Abroad” was quite a touch. Oh, how he must long to be able to dispatch Johnson to some foreign capital, as Winston Churchill sent his Tory rival Lord Halifax to Washington. Or perhaps to head up NATO. Or as some kind of Western envoy (read: mascot) to Kyiv. But I cannot see Johnson accepting any role of the sort. Like the former prime minister Edward Heath refusing the same gig as Halifax that the new leader, Margaret Thatcher, had offered him, Johnson will surely never lower himself to work for another leader.

A note of caution for Sunak, his party, and indeed the country: Johnson’s route back to power does not seem entirely closed off yet. The fact that Johnson was the second-most-popular choice of Conservative members of Parliament to return to the leadership suggests a reservoir of support in the House of Commons, even if it has dried up considerably from his zenith after the 2019 general-election victory. More important, Johnson remains very popular with ordinary party members, who still have the final say on who will be their leader. This time, the party managers tilted the contest by mandating a threshold of parliamentary support that Johnson could not surmount, in one day of working the phones, to get his name on a ballot of the membership; but a next time cannot be ruled out.

These twin facts of his support mean that Johnson retains a plausible route back to the leadership of the Conservative Party, should Sunak lose the next election, which must be held between now and January 2025. By pulling out of the race while claiming, however implausibly, the moral high ground, Johnson will have a story he can sell to however many Conservative members of Parliament remain—and then to party members. It will go something like this: You got rid of an election-winning leader half way through his first term in office. I gave the party elites a chance to correct their mistake, but the backroom fixers made that impossible. And then the other chap lost power. It is time to let me finish the job.

So here’s the scenario for those desperate to see Johnson permanently flushed from the British political scene. If Johnson does return as party leader sometime after a Tory election defeat, his baleful presence could be with us until the end of the decade. Much rides on what Sunak can do to turn around the Conservatives’ divisions and dire polling numbers.