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LONDON — They were once close allies — two Tory Brexiteers working at the top of government to guide Britain through the pandemic.
They then became deadliest enemies, when the apprentice stabbed his master in the back and embarked on an unsuccessful campaign to pinch his job.
Now the toxic rivalry between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak has reached its dramatic third act – an extraordinary struggle to regain control of the Conservative Party after the disaster of Liz Truss’ brief tenure.
“Rishi is the acceptable face of Tories,” said a party insider who knows the two men well, “while Boris has a monstrous appetite and a huge ego – he wouldn’t have gotten where he is without it.”
For Sunak, the victory would mark an unlikely comeback, just six weeks after being soundly beaten in the last leadership contest.
Yet for Johnson, the return would be even more unlikely. No ousted prime minister has returned to No 10 in nearly 40 years, since Labor’s Harold Wilson in 1974. No one before Johnson has ever led the Conservative Party twice.
The leadership race has been truncated to last just a week this time, and candidates must win the support of at least 100 Tory MPs by Monday afternoon to advance to the final ballot from the party base.
MPs have already started declaring their allegiances, with Sunak currently in the lead and Johnson in second place. For both men, there is everything to play for before Monday’s 2 p.m. deadline.
The love that I lost
A final one-on-one duel between Johnson and Sunak would be a gripping moment, even by the standards of a modern conservative party that seems endlessly embroiled in psychodrama.
It was Johnson who gave Sunak his big break, first promoting him to a senior ministerial post in the Treasury and then, six months later, making him chancellor, the government’s second most important post.
At first the couple seemed to be working well, with Johnson’s allies praising his young protege as the couple navigated their way through the COVID pandemic which hit just weeks after Sunak was named Chancellor at the start. of 2020.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor initially had a joint unit of advisers, but it gradually became dominated by Sunak people and the pair found themselves increasingly at odds over tax and spending decisions. Sunak took a more traditional conservative view of fiscal responsibility, and Johnson was comfortable with higher spending and borrowing.
“There had been growing tension between the Prime Minister and Rishi for some time,” said a member of Johnson’s No 10 team. “[Johnson] wanted a more adventurous and ambitious economic policy.
By the time Sunak resigned, relations between the two men had soured bitterly. Johnson’s team had long believed that Sunak was plotting to oust their boss, and the same former aide claimed that Sunak hadn’t even phoned Johnson to tell him he was quitting.
During the summer leadership race, Sunak frequently distanced himself from his former boss, while Johnson’s allies made it clear they were ready to stop Sunak’s march to No. 10 at all cost.
If they end up being the final two contenders, no one in the party will be able to say they don’t have a real choice.
The choice of basis
Many of those who supported Sunak last time out, largely from the moderate or centrist wing of the party, immediately flocked to his side. A few members of the right too – fed up with the Johnson circus – joined them.
For his part, Johnson has garnered support mainly from former loyalist ministers, as well as a cohort of ardent Brexiteers. But he has already demonstrated that he still has the power to attract the party’s heavy hitters, despite his checkered record in office.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, widely praised for his handling of the Ukraine invasion, ruled himself out of the race on Friday and said he was inclined to back Johnson as he ‘wins the election’ . Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley seen as a quasi-spokesman for the post-industrial areas of northern England won by the Tories in 2019, also switched allegiance to Johnson on Friday, having previously backed Sunak in his tete-a-tete with Truss.
Crucially, Johnson has another weapon in his arsenal, in the form of thousands of grassroots activists who believe he was unfairly defenestrated this summer and could yet rise again to save the party. If Johnson can qualify for the members’ ballot, he’d fancy his chances against Sunak – or one of his other rivals – in a final head-to-head.
“It’s very similar to Liz’s vibes of ‘we’re going to win, it’s going to be amazing’ and the sunny highlands,” said one Tory activist. “They all still think that absolutely nothing has happened since 2019, and Boris is still this hugely popular adorable buffoon who wins the election.”
Two rival Whatsapp groups have already sprung up for councilors and other local members: a “Back Boris” group containing more than 500 people and a “Ready4Rishi” group which is closer to 300.
Sunak faces two major obstacles in his quest for Downing Street. The first – a major problem during his last campaign – is a perceived lack of trust among the base, still angry that he turned on Johnson in July and triggered the sequence of events that led to the exit. of the Prime Minister.
Second, Sunak is widely considered to have had a lackluster campaign against Truss last time out – and the Conservative Party is proud to pick the winners. In the words of conservative newsgroup guru James Frayne, Sunak was “technocratic” where Truss was punchy and bold.
For his part, Johnson arrives with enough luggage to fill the Downing Street apartment several times over. More urgently, he faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he misled the House of Commons over the so-called Partygate scandal – a potentially serious offense that could see him temporarily suspended as an MP.
An MP elected in 2019 under Johnson’s banner said: ‘This inquiry would tear us apart if Boris were at No 10. An ex-Johnson aide predicted picking him would prove to be ‘a short-term gain for long-term pain’ as Johnson would provide a temporary bounce to the Tories ‘only to then be mired in months of bullshit’ around investigation. .
The Johnson Myth
But there are also good reasons why these two former allies are the main contenders for number 10.
“[Johnson] makes people feel good about themselves,” said a senior Tory official who has known him since he was mayor of London. “He has that quality.”
A former Sunak campaigner who has worked in frontline politics since the David Cameron era said he was ‘the hardest working politician I have ever seen in my life’, adding: ‘I don’t don’t think anyone comes close to him to understand the economy.”
Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome, said the two men’s campaign appeals were starkly different. Sunak would allow a ‘blue wall’ centered strategy in the next election – appealing to more affluent seats in the South – while ‘the best version of a Boris case is for him to look at realignment which accepts that the future of the Conservative Party is more based on working class constituencies in the North.
Despite the lingering view of many conservatives that Johnson is an election winner, pollsters warn that the situation has changed since his landslide 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 former prime ministers John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron, while a recent poll found that 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 Conservative party “probably have to consider that their problem is that people have lost faith in the economy and are looking at work again.”
none of these answers
It’s not beyond the bounds of the imagination that a third candidate pops up in the middle and beats the two biggest hitters in the race.
Brexiteer darlings Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman are all said to be hoping to beat Sunak in a membership ballot – although of these Mordaunt is likely the only one likely to draw enough support from MPs to reach a final head-to-head.
Also, as of Friday night, neither man had formally declared their candidacy – and many expect Johnson to only re-enter the fray if he is confident he can win.
“The fact that he lost a leadership race is just ignominious – it’s not how the mythos is supposed to end,” Hill said. “In this circumstance, he’d probably be much happier to still be able to think ‘oh, that could have been me. “”