Supporters of Rishi Sunak have warned of a “constitutional crisis” if Boris Johnson becomes the second prime minister in succession to be elected by Tory members in the face of opposition from the party’s MPs.
The former PM may find himself faced with a boycott of his government by MPs along the lines of the mass resignation which forced his departure in July, said one minister, who warned Johnson would not last until 2023, let alone the general election expected in 2024.
The warning came after the Johnson camp sensationally claimed to have secured the promise of the 100 MPs’ signatures he needs to enter the race to succeed Liz Truss, apparently dashing Mr Sunak’s hope for an uncontested coronation on Monday.
But the claim by Johnson ally Sir James Duddridge was greeted with deep scepticism by Sunak supporters, with one challenging him to “prove it” and another retorting that the supposed hidden army of Bring Back Boris MPs “don’t exist”.
“If Boris has 100 in the bag, why is his campaign putting out pics of him begging for votes?” asked Poole MP Sir Robert Syms.
With Sir James saying only that 100 MPs were “prepared to sign nomination papers”, there were suspicions in the Sunak camp that Mr Johnson was laying the ground for a face-saving announcement that, while he had the necessary support, he felt the time was not right for him to return to frontline politics.
Earlier on Saturday, the Johnson campaign appeared to be sputtering to a halt before it was even formally confirmed, despite winning the high-profile endorsement of former home secretary Priti Patel.
While Mr Sunak sped past the 100-nomination threshold late on Friday, Mr Johnson appeared becalmed on declared support of a little over half that figure, and was hit by former close allies David Frost, Dominic Raab and Steve Barclay – his Brexit negotiator, deputy prime minsiter and chief of staff – all declaring for his rival.
Mr Sunak was also boosted by the backing of trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, who ran a well-regarded bid for the leadership in the summer and is regarded as a rising star.
If two contenders clear the nominations hurdle on Monday, MPs will hold an “indicative” vote to give members a clear steer on how much support they enjoy in the Commons – and to give the second-placed candidate the chance to pull out if they trail by an overwhelming margin.
But the Johnson team believe that if the ex-PM can get onto the ballot paper alongside Mr Sunak, even in second place, he can sweep to victory on the back of members’ votes in an online vote to conclude on Friday.
Apparently spooked by the prospect of Johnson gathering the necessary support to run, a series of Sunak supporters issued statements warning of the dire consequences for the party if activists impose another leader against MPs’ will.
“Being elected the leader of the largest party in parliament, but without being able to form a stable government, would be a new set of circumstances which could lead to constitutional crisis and early general election in chaotic circumstances,” said trade minister Greg Hands.
His warning came as The Independent’s petition calling for a general election now passed 360,000 signatures.
Mr Hands claimed that the former PM had offered him the cabinet role of Northern Ireland secretary as he struggled to fill government posts amid an exodus of ministers in July.
“I think he would have offered me almost anything,” said Mr Hands. “I refused.”
And he warned that the situation could be repeated under a second Johnson premiership: “Some of my colleagues think he could win a 2024 general election. But if you can’t form a workable, effective and stable government, you’ll never get to 2023, let alone 2024.”
And former cabinet minister Robert Jenrick warned that the scandals which forced Johnson out of office “remain unresolved” while the newly-jittery markets would no longer tolerate his “fiscal cakeism”.
“There may be another moment for Boris, but now is not the time for him to take back the reins,” said Mr Jenrick.
Mr Raab warned that a Johnson premiership would plunge the country and the Tory party back, Groundhog Day-style, into the Partygate “soap opera”, with the PM forced to give evidence on camera to a standards inquiry into alleged lies to parliament which could lead to his removal as an MP.
With Penny Mordaunt so far the only contender formally to declare her candidacy, a Tory MP who quit the government ahead of Johnson’s downfall in July told The Independent she hoped he would not put himself forward.
“I hope he has some integrity left and will not stand,” said the MP. “Whilst the standards investigation is ongoing it is wrong. He cannot unite the party that he divided.
“While Boris is popular with the electorate, we need to calm the markets and bring back the brilliant voices and wisdom that have been returned to the backbench in the interests of the country and the economy – not one man’s political ambition.”
Meanwhile, long-serving Tory MPs Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Bridgen declared that they were ready to decline the Conservative whip and sit in parliament as independents if Mr Johnson was re-elected for a second stint at 10 Downing Street.
And a flash survey of members of the Tory Reform Group found 86 per cent saying they did not want Mr Johnson back.
The Group’s chair Flora Coleman said his return would spark an exodus of moderates from the party.
“We have seen that the party’s centrist members have been ‘quiet quitting’ for years,” said Ms Coleman. “It’s clear the return of Johnson would finally end the relationship for many.”
Mr Johnson returned to the UK from a Caribbean holiday on an overnight plane arriving at Gatwick early on Saturday, and immediately took to the phones to drum up support.
Supporters released photos of a determined but tired-looking Johnson on the phone in a grey suit, doing a thumbs-up in front of a Union Jack flag.
Backer Andrew Stephenson said that said that many of the more than 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 BBC Radio 4’s Today.
But the Labour chair of the Commons Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, said that Mr Johnson was a “disgraced” figure who was “unfit for office”.
Mr Bryant said that if elected PM, Mr Johnson would spend the first months of his second premiership “entirely focused” on the contempt probe by the separate Privileges Committee.
And he added that he could then “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”.