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Boris Johnson vs Rishi Sunak: The mother of all leadership battles

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LONDON — They were once close allies — two Tory Brexiteers working at the very top of government to steer Britain through the pandemic.

They then became the deadliest of enemies, when the apprentice knifed his master in the back and embarked on a fruitless campaign to pinch his job.

Now the poisonous rivalry between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak has reached its dramatic third act — an extraordinary struggle to take back control of the Conservative Party following the disaster of Liz Truss’ brief tenure.

“Rishi is the acceptable face of the Conservatives,” said one party insider who knows both men well, “whereas Boris has a monstrous appetite and a huge ego — he wouldn’t have got where he is without it.” 

For Sunak, victory would mark an improbable comeback, just six weeks after he was roundly defeated in the last leadership contest.

Yet for Johnson, the comeback would be even more unlikely. No ousted prime minister has returned to No. 10 in nearly 40 years, since Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1974. Nobody since Bonar Law in the 1920s has led the Conservative Party twice.

The leadership contest has been truncated to last just a single week this time, and nominees must secure the backing of at least 100 Tory MPs by Monday afternoon to go forward to a final ballot of the party grassroots. 

MPs have begun declaring their allegiances already, with Sunak currently in the lead and Johnson in second place. For both men, there is all to play for ahead of Monday’s 2 p.m. deadline.

The love I lost

A final head-to-head dual between Johnson and Sunak would be a gripping moment even by the standards of a modern-day Conservative Party which seems endlessly embroiled in psychodrama.

It was Johnson who gave Sunak his big break, promoting him first to a senior ministerial role in the Treasury and then, six months later, making him chancellor, the second-biggest job in government.

At first, the pair seemed to work well, with Johnson’s allies heaping praise on his young protege as the pair battled their way through the COVID pandemic which struck just a few weeks after Sunak was appointed chancellor in early 2020.

The PM and chancellor initially had a joint unit of advisers, but it gradually became dominated by Sunak’s people and the pair increasingly found themselves at loggerheads over tax-and-spend decisions. Sunak tacked to a more traditional Conservative view of fiscal responsibility and Johnson was comfortable with higher spending and borrowing. 

“There had been mounting tension between the PM and Rishi for a while,” said one member of Johnson’s No. 10 team. “[Johnson] wanted a more adventurous, ambitious economic policy.”

By the time Sunak resigned, relations between the two men had deteriorated bitterly. Johnson’s team had long believed Sunak was plotting to oust their boss, and the same former aide claimed Sunak had not even phoned Johnson to warn him he was quitting.

During the summer leadership contest Sunak frequently distanced himself from his old boss, while allies of Johnson made clear they were prepared to stop Sunak’s march to No. 10 at any cost.

If they do end up as the final two contenders, nobody in the party will be able to say they are not getting a genuine choice. 

Grassroots’ choice

Many of those who backed Sunak last time, largely from the moderate or centrist wing of the party, have immediately flocked back to his side. A few right-wingers, too — fed up of the Johnson circus — have joined them. 

For his part, Johnson has garnered support mainly from loyalist former ministers, along with a cohort of ardent Brexiteers. But he has already demonstrated he still has the power to attract party big hitters, despite his checkered record in office. 

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, well-regarded for his handling of the Ukraine invasion, ruled himself out of the race Friday and said he was inclined to support Johnson as he “wins elections.” Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor seen as a quasi-spokesman for the post-industrial areas in northern England won by the Tories in 2019, also switched allegiance to Johnson Friday, having previously backed Sunak in his head-to-head with Truss. 

Crucially, Johnson has another weapon in his armory, in the form of thousands of grassroots activists who believe he was wrongfully defenestrated in the summer and could yet rise again to save the party. If Johnson can make it onto the members’ ballot, he would fancy his chances against Sunak — or any of his other rivals — in a final head-to-head.

“It’s very similar to the Liz vibes of ‘we’re gonna win, it’s gonna be amazing’ and sunlit uplands,” said one Tory activist. “They all still think that absolutely nothing has happened since 2019, and Boris is still this hugely popular lovable buffoon that wins elections.”

Two rival Whatsapp groups have already sprung up for councillors and other local members: a ‘Back Boris’ group containing more than 500 people and a ‘Ready4Rishi’ group which is closer to 300. 

Stumbling blocks

Sunak faces two major obstacles in his quest for Downing Street. The first — a major problem in his last campaign — is a perception of untrustworthiness among the grassroots, still angry that he turned on Johnson in July and triggered the sequence of events that led to the PM’s exit.

Second, Sunak is widely seen to have fought a lackluster campaign against Truss last time around — and the Conservative Party prides itself on picking winners. In the words of Tory focus group guru James Frayne, Sunak was “technocratic” where Truss was punchy and bold. 

For his part, Johnson comes with enough baggage to fill the Downing Street flat several times over. Most pressingly, he is facing a parliamentary inquiry into whether he misled the House of Commons over the so-called Partygate scandal — a potentially serious offense which could see him temporarily suspended as an MP.

One MP elected in 2019 under Johnson’s banner said: “This inquiry would rip us apart if Boris was in No. 10.” An ex-aide to Johnson predicted that choosing him would prove to be “short-term gain for long-term pain,” as Johnson would provide a temporary bounce for the Tories “only to be then mired in months of crap” around the inquiry. 

The Johnson myth 

But there are good reasons, too, why these two former allies are the leading contenders for No. 10.

“[Johnson] does just make people feel good about themselves,” said a senior Conservative official who has known him since his time as mayor of London. “He has that quality.”

A former Sunak campaign member who has worked in frontline politics since the David Cameron era said he was “the hardest working politician I’ve ever seen in my life,” adding: “I don’t think anyone comes close to him in understanding the economy.”

Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome, said the two men’s electoral appeal was radically different. Sunak would enable a “blue wall”-centered strategy at the next election — appealing to more affluent seats in the South — while “the best version of a Boris case is that it’s leaning into the realignment which accepts the Conservative Party’s future is more based on working-class constituencies in the North.”

Despite the persistent view among many Tories that Johnson is an election winner, however, pollsters warn the picture has shifted since his thumping 80-seat victory in 2019. 

Keiran Pedley of IPSOS said Johnson’s net satisfaction rating with the general public on leaving office was worse than that of past PMs John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron, while a recent poll found most people rated Sunak above Johnson when it came to doing a better job than Truss. 

Perhaps more important than their personal ratings, Pedley added, the Tory Party “probably needs to consider that their problem is that people have lost confidence in them on the economy and are looking anew at Labour.”

None of the above

It is not beyond the realms of imagination that a third candidate surges through the middle and defeats the two biggest hitters in the race.

Brexiteer darlings Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman would all be hopeful of beating Sunak in a members’ ballot — although of these, Mordaunt is probably the only one likely to attract enough support from MPs to reach a final head-to-head. 

Intriguingly, rumors abound — denied by both camps — of the possibility of a deal between the two men; one perhaps accepting a senior position in the other’s administration in return for their support.

“I reckon he wants a big job,” one former adviser to Johnson said. “Home secretary, or foreign secretary maybe.”

While Johnson was photographed flying back to the U.K. from his Caribbean holiday late Friday night, many expect he will only reenter the fray if he is confident he can win. 

“Him losing a leadership contest is just ignominious — that’s not how the myth is meant to end,” said Hill. “In that circumstance, he’d probably be much happier always being able to think ‘oh, it could have been me.’”

This story was updated to include Boris Johnson’s return to the U.K.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to say that nobody since Bonar Law in the 1920s has led the Conservative Party twice.



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