Boris Johnson’s former deputy has warned Tories not to plunge the country into a Partygate “Groundhog Day” by returning him to Downing Street as prime minister.
Dominic Raab was speaking as Mr Johnson flew back from a Caribbean holiday to London, where he is expected to launch a bid to succeed Liz Truss as PM in what would be an extraordinary comeback less than two months after leaving office.
The former deputy PM said that the shadow of a contempt inquiry hanging over Mr Johnson represented a “fundamental hurdle” to his ambition to return to frontline politics.
The Commons Privileges Committee will shortly begin live televised hearings at which the former PM will be grilled over allegedly lying to parliament about lockdown-breaching parties at No 10.
And the chair of the separate Commons Standards Committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, said the process could force Mr Johnson out of parliament in a recall by-election within months – meaning the election of yet another prime minister.
Supporters of former chancellor Rishi Sunak supporters say he has already passed the threshold of 100 MPs’ nominations to enter the succession battle, while Mr Johnson is thought to have received around half that number, including endorsements from cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ben Wallace and Simon Clarke.
He has told allies he is “up for it”, but is yet officially to launch a campaign. Only Penny Mordaunt has so far formally thrown her hat into the ring ahead of the 2pm Monday deadline.
Reports suggest Mr Johnson was booed as he boarded a BA flight from the Dominican Republic on Friday night.
And party grandees have voiced horror at the prospect of his return, with former leader William Hague warning it could propel the Conservatives into a “death spiral” and ex-foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind describing it as “utterly indefensible”.
“It’s possibly the worst idea I’ve heard of in the 46 years I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party,” Lord Hague told Times Radio.
Ratings agency Moody’s downgraded its outlook for the UK from “stable” to “negative” on the back of worries about the “heightened unpredictability in policy making” in Westminster.
Long-serving Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said he would consider giving up the party whip if Mr Johnson became leader, warning that nothing had changed since he was forced out.
“I would have to seriously consider my position of Boris Johnson becomes leader,” Mr Bridgen told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I’m not convinced I could serve on the benches if he became PM, knowing what we know about what he has done.”
But prominent Johnson backer Andrew Stephenson said that said that many of the 60 MPs who quit government posts in protest at his behaviour in July now regret forcing him out.
“I have heard lots of MPs who now feel that they were rash to judge him before the summer, rash to encourage him to resign then and now feel that this is somebody who – in terms of the big national and international challenges we face – has very good judgement and therefore at a difficult time for the country we need him back,” the former Tory chair told Today.
Mr Bryant said that Mr Johnson was a “disgraced” figure who was “unfit for office”.
And he added: “His biggest problem is he will be spending probably the first two months of his of his second premiership entirely focused on the privileges inquiry, and may, at the end of it, be found to have been in contempt of Parliament, suspended from the House of Commons and potentially facing a by-election in a seat which he would lose.”
Mr Raab told Today that the privileges inquiry presented a “fundamental hurdle” to any Johnson bid for the leadership.
“I stood by Boris, I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” said Mr Raab. “I just can’t see in practice how the new prime minister, in office at the latest next Friday, could give the country the attention and focus that it needs and at the same time be giving testimony and answering all of those questions.
“We cannot go backwards, we cannot have another episode of the Groundhog Day, of the soap opera of Partygate. We must get the country and the government moving forward.”
Amid speculation about a deal to bring Johnson and Sunak together in a “dream ticket”, Mr Raab said he was not aware of any contact between the pair.
The former foreign secretary said he believed Mr Sunak was “open” to talking to people from across the party.
But he said: “Whether you are an arch-Boris fan or an arch-Boris critic, I don’t see how you can reconcile returning to frontline politics with that committee looming and hanging over your head and oral testimony being heard.”