A bitter split has emerged among Conservative plotters over how best to restore Boris Johnson to his former role as leader of the party.
A move by one group of his supporters to empower the party’s grassroots members in order to pave the way for the erstwhile prime minister to return has been dismissed as “b*****ks” by a rival camp of Mr Johnson’s allies.
But the first group hit back, predicting he would be the “Conservative Harold Wilson – he will serve two distinct terms”.
Allies of Mr Johnson predicted there would be a number of opportunities to implement their plans over the coming months, particularly if the party suffers poor results in May’s local elections.
The row between rival factions erupted at the end of a difficult week for the former prime minister.
On Wednesday, he faced claims that he had quipped during a leaving do held at No 10 while Covid lockdown restrictions were still in place that it was the “most un-socially distanced party in the UK right now”.
Friends of Mr Johnson also suggested that he may have to strike a deal with Rishi Sunak and agree to refrain from challenging the current prime minister’s leadership in return for a safer seat to fight in the next general election.
And senior military figures criticised Mr Johnson over a planned trip to Ukraine, with one accusing him of “looking for publicity” in a war zone.
One former cabinet minister and a staunch ally of Mr Johnson told The Independent that they now believe there is “no chance” of him returning as leader, and that another change would be “disastrous” for the party.
Gary Streeter, the MP for South West Devon, said: “It is not going to happen … it is a small number of people plotting in a room.” But many of Mr Johnson’s supporters insist he should not be counted out just yet.
One former minister said a vote of no confidence in Mr Sunak, or pressure to force a resignation, could happen before June. The parliamentary party is hungering for someone who puts “fire in their bellies”, rather than the “dour” current leadership they fear will lead to a general election loss, they said.
Meanwhile, Sir James Duddridge, who shot to fame when Mr Johnson texted him during the last leadership contest to say “I’m flying back, Dudders, we are going to do this,” insisted there is “no plot” but said that work is going on behind the scenes to keep “the flame alive”.
This includes keeping Mr Johnson in touch with MPs and getting him around the country speaking to constituency associations, he said. He also admitted that it involves allies of the former prime minister doing all they can to ensure he wins re-election in his Westminster seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and “making sure he gets through” a forthcoming parliamentary inquiry into the Partygate scandal.
If the seven-member Commons privileges committee rules against Mr Johnson, MPs could be asked to vote on a suspension serious enough to lead to the threat of a by-election in his seat.
Additional steps being taken to ease Mr Johnson’s future return as leader were compared by Sir James to a “sausage machine that I don’t think the public wants to see”. But he said one minister who had resigned over Partygate had recently spoken to him about Mr Johnson and had been “in tears” over the realisation that the party had lost a vote-winner.
Speaking about the drive to transfer more power to grassroots members at the expense of Tory MPs, who have kicked out three prime ministers in just five years, Sir James said: “The constitution of the party is really quite complex. It is not the answer to our problems. The answer is, first of all, MPs getting behind Rishi. And if that does not work, finding somebody else at whatever point.”
Another ally of Mr Johnson went further. “It is b*****ks,” they said. “There is nothing there. It is just not happening. It is a non-entity.”
Lord Cruddas, who is leading the Conservative Democratic Organisation group’s grassroots push, hit back, accusing MPs of trying to hoard power.
“It’s not a surprise to hear some MPs don’t want to change the rules, because they hold the balance of power,” he said. “But there’s little they can do if members come together. The members are fighting back.”
Another key driver of the campaign, Lord Greenhalgh, who worked for Mr Johnson when he was mayor of London, predicted the former prime minister would stage a successful return: “He’s the Conservative Harold Wilson – he will serve two distinct terms.”
Allies are also split on when a potential comeback could happen. Some believe it could require the loss of dozens of Tory seats at the next general election, while others point to a disastrous result in May’s local elections being enough to tip the balance.
One former minister predicted there could be movement before June. He said that a wipeout in May’s local elections, or anger among members at the Conservative Party Spring Forum in March, could act as a “trigger” for MPs to oust the prime minister and reinstate his predecessor.
“Rishi doesn’t have the mandate, and he’s trying to nick the language Boris used,” the MP added. “He’s making promises that are undeliverable, and on top of that he is trying to behave as though he’s not sat in government for the last three years … you can’t just put that in the bin and get rabbits out of a white hat in another corner.”
The former minister said “cracks” in government policy have turned into “holes that are really showing, on the economy, public sector workers and the NHS”.
They condemned the approach to the strikes being held by nurses and ambulance workers, adding: “If Boris had been in charge, he wouldn’t have been having a fight with the NHS, he would have been in hospitals every day saying ‘You guys saved my life.’ It’s all about leadership.”
The MP accused Mr Sunak of “surrounding himself with lame people” and of appointing a “thumb-sucking cabinet who just look up to [him]”.
Many Tory MPs are highly sceptical of the idea of restoring Mr Johnson as leader. Former Brexit secretary David Davis said: “It’s a very, very, very bad idea. It’s a small minority [who back him]. There’s no overwhelming backing for him. And he knows that, which is why he didn’t run in October.”
He said that about 20 per cent of Tory MPs “are obsessed by the fact they voted for him, and therefore he should be [in power] irrespective of what sin he committed”.
A significant number of Tory MPs are also vigorously opposed to Mr Johnson’s return to the leadership – a situation even his allies acknowledge is a stumbling block. Some fear that reinstalling the former prime minister would leave the Tories unable to move on from the Partygate scandal, which they say is still causing real anger on doorsteps.
But supporters who argue that Mr Johnson should be reinstated because he is the only candidate who can save the party from annihilation at the next general election may be surprised to find agreement on the Labour front bench.
One shadow cabinet minister said he was confident about the outcome of the next election because he did not believe that Mr Sunak could turn around the Conservative Party’s dire poll ratings. “But Boris could, through sheer force of personality alone,” he predicted.
A spokesperson for the former prime minister said: “Boris Johnson is fully supporting the government.”
Downing Street declined to comment.