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A ‘shock and wonder’ campaign is underway to revive Johnson, but a win is not in the bag | katy balls


Jhe Conservative Party is looking for its third leader of the year and could have one as early as Monday at tea time. In order to temper the ridiculousness of the second leadership contest this year, the process has been significantly shortened. Nominees will be narrowed down on Monday, with the bottom two going to members – provided the runner-up doesn’t drop out.

The rule changes are aimed at finding a candidate quickly rather than allowing endless appearances by ambitious ministers. “The best thing the 1922 Committee did was to spare us a week of ministers like Brandon Lewis pretending to have a chance,” says a party veteran.

The threshold – each candidate must gain the support of 100 MPs – to even enter means there will be a maximum of three candidates. The most likely suitors are Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt. Each has supporters of the MP coming to support them – although only Mordaunt has publicly stated this. The deputies are also watching what Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch are up to – given they both threw their hats in the ring last time out – but the threshold is probably too high for them.

Of the three candidates MPs are currently behind, Mordaunt is trailing behind. “I think the air has gone out of Penny,” says an MP who had previously considered supporting her. Others blame the fact that she backed Truss – it was a decision that landed badly with one-nation conservatives, who took an “anything but Truss” stance. Moreover, the scale of the crisis means that the experience is considered even more important than it was a few months ago in the first leadership contest of the year. “I’m afraid she’s Liz Truss mark II,” says a member of the Class of 2010. “She’s relatively untested.”

Instead, the main debate among MPs is the Sunak vs. Johnson playoff. Until today, Sunak was widely considered the favorite. His warnings about the economy during the leadership campaign proved true. It could also help calm the markets. He is at the head of the nominations of the deputies. However, there are still a lot of conservatives who don’t like it. “Rishi cannot unite the party,” said a center MP. Although it’s not clear at this point that anyone can.

Others fear a revolt from Conservative members if he is pushed. “They had Rishi’s option and they said no. I love it; I would vote for him, but I’m not sure it works with the base,” says a member of the Class of 2015.

Moreover, he now faces an insurgent campaign from his former boss. The former prime minister had remained silent as Truss struggled to cling to power. That led to speculation that Johnson might not even want to return. But, while he hasn’t said so publicly yet, it’s clear he’s testing the waters of a comeback. “He will only want to announce if it’s clear he’s going to win – and the party needs him,” says a former cabinet colleague.

To that end, a “shock and awe” campaign is underway. His supporters are trying to broadcast endorsements to the beat, with MPs taking to the airwaves, in a bid to make it look like he will almost inevitably triumph. While he has the party’s attention, others are unconvinced. “They are the loudest and loudest people,” says a former minister.

“I think he might get stuck at the 85/90 mark,” says a party veteran. Big mentions in the Sunday papers could change that, convincing MPs worried about their seat that it’s the best option. His supporters believe that if he achieves membership, he will triumph.

But Johnson’s problem is that Truss’ downfall might have come a little too soon. “The wounds are fresh – there are MPs who will quit if he comes back. I didn’t quit to oust him only to then vote to bring him back. The party is having a nervous breakdown if they think Boris Johnson is the answer. They predict chaos from day one.

There is also an obstacle that focuses minds: the privileges committee. Johnson is under investigation into whether he misled Parliament over breaches of Covid rules. “It will be three months of pain and Partygate again,” a former Johnson supporter predicted. If found guilty, he could face a suspension leading to a by-election.

Downing Street could try to avoid this fate. He could try to block the committee’s investigation in advance or ask MPs to vote against the sanction. Both would need votes in the House of Commons. Both would face opposition. It would be a repeat of the Owen Paterson debacle. “There would be a revolt. This would result in a new leader, ”says a senior Conservative official. ‘I would support Boris if it wasn’t for privileges,’ one MP says, looking nervously forward.

The Truss era is over, but the psychodrama has only just begun.

theguardian

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