Dominic Raab says Boris 'could make a return to frontline politics'
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Boris Johnson was on course to pull off the biggest comeback in political history last night. The former PM whipped up support for a second stint in Number 10 as MPs rallied behind his bid to reclaim the Tory crown.
He cut short a family holiday in the Caribbean amid mounting expectation that he will enter the leadership race. Within four hours of his BA plane touching down at Gatwick, allies claimed to have gathered the support of 100 MPs – enough to get his name on the final ballot.
He must then see off rival Rishi Sunak to be back in Downing Street within days. Last night, ex-culture secretary Nadine Dorries gleefully declared: “The boss is back. The one person Labour fear most is Boris Johnson.”
Former home secretary Priti Patel joined the BoJo bandwagon and added: “We need Boris to return as our Prime Minister.”
Mr Johnson is expected to throw his hat into the ring before tomorrow’s 2pm deadline for nominations.
If he has passed the 100-name threshold, he is almost certain to enter the ballot of 180,000 Conservative members who will decide on their next leader. He is so popular at grassroots level that he is sure to win in a head-to-head with Mr Sunak, who the same people rejected for Liz Truss in August.
It means Mr Johnson could make a jubilant return to Downing Street by Friday – just 52 days after he was kicked out of office by the parliamentary party. And the former prime minister was set to begin talks with his rival candidates Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, in a bid to form a “dream team” pact which would allow him to be declared leader as soon as Monday.
But friends of leadership favourite Mr Sunak challenged the former prime minister to prove that he has the amount of support that his allies are claiming. One MP questioned why Mr Johnson had not named the backers, stating: “It’s because they don’t exist.”
In a day of high drama, the leadership race was set alight when Mr Johnson flew back from his sunshine break in the Dominican Republic with wife Carrie and their two children. As excitement reached fever pitch, 6,800 people were tracking BA flight 2156 on an air traffic website.
No one has returned as prime minister after resigning as leader since William Gladstone did it 140 years ago.
A Johnson loyalist said: “This could turn out to be the greatest comeback since Lazarus. We all thought that Boris might return to lead us again one day but never expected it to happen as quickly as this.”
Under re-drawn party rules, all candidates must be nominated by at least 100 of the 357 Tory MPs to enter the contest. Former chancellor Mr Sunak has more than 120 backers and Commons leader Ms Mordaunt is lagging behind with 26.
If three enter the race, MPs will get a vote and the candidate who comes last will drop out. Mr Johnson is highly likely to win a straight contest with either of his opponents.
Friends of Mr Sunak say that he is going flat out to “hoover up” as many MPs’ votes as possible to send a clear message to the membership that he is the only one who can bring stability to the country.
They hope that members will heed it in the wake of their decision to reject him last time and put Ms Truss in power. But one admitted: “They like Boris so much that it’s going to be near-impossible to beat him if his name is on the final ballot again.”
Yesterday a poll found that Mr Johnson would stand a better chance than any of his rivals of defeating Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at the ballot box. A Delta poll survey found that if an election were held now, Labour would have a lead of 25 points – and a majority of 320.
If Mr Johnson was PM, the lead would be cut to 10 points, with a Labour majority of 26. Commons Leader Ms Mordaunt, who launched her bid on Friday, would lose to a Labour majority of 216.
Former home secretary Priti Patel threw her support behind Mr Johnson last night in an article for the Sunday Express. She declared: “We need Boris to return as our Prime Minister, to bring together a united team to deliver our manifesto and lead Britain to a stronger and more prosperous future.”
Ms Mordaunt, also writing in the Sunday Express, insisted she is the candidate to bring warring Tory factions together. She said: “I want to lay out a plan for our future which offers health, wealth and security for everyone.”
Senior Tories are desperate to end the civil war tearing their party apart. Robert Halfon, a former Minister and now chair of the Commons Education Committee, warned that his party had a “last chance” to avoid electoral “oblivion” at the hands of angry voters.
But MPs remain divided, with both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak on the receiving end of angry briefings from their enemies. One MP loyal to Mr Johnson said: “Some of us will fight to the death to stop Rishi.”
Another MP admitted: “There is a view that Rishi is a sort of Judas. It doesn’t make sense to me but it’s very strong.”
And a serving Minister told the Sunday Express: “There’s no way I would serve under Boris Johnson. I couldn’t do it in good conscience and I think there are a lot of people with that mindset.”
Polls suggest that the Tories are heading for electoral wipeout following weeks of chaos. But polling expert Sir John Curtice said there is “one thread of hope” for the party if they could unite behind a new leader.
It was a message echoed by Tory veteran Sir Bernard Ingham, who served as press secretary for former PM Margaret Thatcher.
Writing in the Sunday Express, he said the question “is whether the party can be pacified, brought to believe all is not lost and that a show of united purpose will work wonders electorally. Or whether it is so faction-ridden and addicted to internecine warfare that it is incapable of being brought to its senses.”
One Cabinet minister said: “I haven’t decided who to back yet. It’s a close call. Boris has the edge because he is a great campaigner.
“Rishi may have the economic know-how but does he have what it takes to beat Labour when he couldn’t win the last leadership contest?”
But the former PM is assured of the support of one Conservative activist – father Stanley Johnson, who declared: “I will be voting for Boris because I think he will do the things I care about, Europe, environment, peace in our time and net zero.”
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Ms Truss made the decision to resign as PM at around 1am on Thursday morning, as chief whip Wendy Morton gave her a blunt warning that there was no way of restoring discipline among warring Tory MPs.
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