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LONDON — He was meant to be too electable to ignore.
The bad boy of British politics, who possessed a cat-like ability to come back from the dead, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s success rested on his party collectively holding their noses and supporting him anyway.
Now, forced out of Downing Street when he lost the support of his Cabinet last summer and no longer an MP after he quit in anticipation of the verdict of a committee tasked with investigating whether he lied to parliament, Johnson’s appeal has slowly eroded.
“His popularity steadily went down after partygate,” said YouGov’s Anthony Wells. “And there’s no obvious sign of opinions of him recovering since he last left office.”
As his rating plummeted in the polls, so too did support among his backbench MPs, many of whom were originally elected on a wave of Boris fandom in 2019.
When back in March he appeared in front of the committee he last week blasted as a “kangaroo court,” his team had advised journalists that there would be supportive MPs waiting nearby and willing to speak to the press afterwards. In the end just one — backbencher Brendan Clarke-Smith — turned up, and he didn’t stay long.
“I don’t think whether you’re in the Conservative Party or elsewhere, anyone misses the drama [of the Johnson premiership],” Energy Secretary Grant Shapps told Times Radio Sunday. “The world has moved on.”
Another minister observed that he was “the architect of his own destruction — but then he has never known how to behave. Best to move on.” While a third, who supported Johnson for leadership of the Tory party in 2019, sounded relieved, saying: “We’re over him. It’s over, thank goodness.”
The headache for current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was prolonged when, following Johnson’s announcement he was quitting as an MP, two of the former prime minister’s allies — former ministers Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams — also stood down, triggering three awkward by-elections which the Tories may lose.
Yet the trio has not been followed — so far, at least — by further demonstrations of solidarity, suggesting Johnson’s departure will be a significant moment for the party he has dominated for the last decade, but not an existential crisis.
On the slide
After bobbing up and down during the pandemic, Johnson’s ratings slid from the summer of 2021 onwards and by the time he left office he had net favorability of -42 percent. Surveyed earlier this year, 55 percent said they’d be unhappy to see him return.
There is some evidence that voters are tired not only of Johnson as leader, but the constant psychodrama he embodies.
Luke Tryl, who runs focus groups for More in Common, picks up a mood of “exhaustion” among participants, who would much rather talk about the NHS and cost of living than the tribulations of the Tory party.
But despite obvious signs of weariness in his own party and the wider electorate, there are those who believe he could yet return to power.
“He can never be written off,” said David Jones, a former minister and trenchant Brexiteer. “He is a remarkable politician.”
A Conservative MP for a deprived constituency said that while he accepted the wider party had fallen out of love with him, “my perception is skewed by living in a place where I believe he is still immensely popular — I don’t think you should ever write him off.”
YouGov’s Wells pointed out that while Johnson’s popularity has ebbed, it has not disappeared altogether. “There’s still a very solid chunk of [Conservative voters] who have a positive opinion of him.” While 56 percent of the public would not like to see Johnson back as an MP, there are 25 percent who would, according to a survey carried out Monday.
Agitator in chief
Even without eyeing a return to frontline politics, Johnson has the power to inflict pain on Sunak — most obviously by tuning into discontent with current tax levels and accusing the government of abandoning “proper Conservatism.”
He may be unpopular with his colleagues right now, but the picture could become less certain if the Conservatives lose the next election and find themselves with no obvious successor to Sunak.
There is also the possibility that Johnson relies on his personal appeal to reach outside the party, as Nigel Farage has urged him to do.
But there is a small, key difference between Johnson’s standing now and his sometime mythical ability to win people over. At the last two major opportunities he has had to test others’ opinion of him — the most recent Conservative leadership contest, and a potential by-election in his seat — he chose to walk away instead.
Emilio Casalicchio and Eleni Courea contributed reporting.
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