Johnson, then prime minister, with Truss, then foreign secretary, in 2022. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Johnson and Truss: The comebacks the country didn’t call for

In its desperation to recycle failed leaders the Tory party shows the world it is bereft of talent—and heading for the electoral wilderness
March 1, 2023

Not many politicians get to lead their party twice. Only one person in the history of the Conservative party has had two shots at being leader, and that was Andrew Bonar Law, who only resigned because he was seriously ill, and when called to take back the leadership died not long after. Several leaders who left the job amid party hostility certainly felt they had more to offer—neither Edward Heath nor Margaret Thatcher were ever reconciled to their downfalls—but they never really attempted to retake the throne.

Party leaders lose their position because they have become deeply unpopular with voters, evidenced either by an election loss or disastrous polling. Even if they manage to partially recover their reputation, it’s by then too late as a new generation of ambitious ­politicians has come to the fore. They can perhaps become—like John Major, William Hague or Gordon Brown—a respected elder stateman in their party, but no more.

The odd thing about the comeback attempts by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss is that they haven’t bothered waiting for their reputations to recover. In October, a mere three months after half of Johnson’s government resigned because they were unwilling to work with him anymore, he decided he’d like to have another go. Truss left it barely 100 days after resigning in ignominy before publishing a graceless screed in the pages of the Sunday Telegraph blaming everyone other than herself for her downfall. (Her claim to have searched her soul doesn’t say much for its dimensions.) Allies dutifully briefed the press that she quite fancied another go at leading the post-election opposition.

While there is a sizeable rump of Tory MPs whose brains are so addled that they were prepared to vote for Johnson and give Truss a hearing, the public haven’t shifted their position. When Ipsos asked in January if Johnson “has what it takes to be a good prime minister” he secured a net score of minus 39 points (compared with minus 11 points for Rishi Sunak). No one has polled Truss given it’s only a few months since she scored the lowest approval rating of any prime minister in history.

Why then, given their manifest narcissistic absurdity, are these comebacks being entertained by the press and the Tory party? For sections of the media it’s largely boredom. After almost seven years of chaos triggered by Brexit, they are drunk on soap opera politics. Sunak may not have impressed voters but he has stilled the drama. His team leaks far less and, so far at least, looks more united. His personal style is Goldman Sachs data analyst rather than after-dinner speaker. Tales abound in Whitehall of the prime minister quizzing officials and experts on tiny details discovered in technical reports. On top of this, his team have made the conscious decision not to feed the beast by presenting a minister for a media round each morning, or scheduling diverting policy announcements every day. There are definite advantages to this approach. But it means the beast is hungry, and rooting round for tasty morsels.

The odd thing is that Truss and Johnson haven’t waited for their reputations to recover at all

For the party it’s more existential. The polls are not improving. Sunak’s popularity has cratered as non-­Conservative voters, who previously associated him with the pragmatic generosity of the furlough scheme, see his intransigence over nurses’ pay and failure to stem the tide of corruption and sleaze stories. Many MPs disliked him from the moment he ran for leader, either because they unfairly blamed him for Johnson’s fall, or simply because they see him as too callow for the top job. But when they look round for alternatives, they are stumped. Even if they could face the opprobrium of another leadership change, who would be better? There aren’t many popular Tories at the moment. And of those fresh faces the membership could stomach, none have the experience. That Kemi Badenoch is the frontrunner to be the next leader shows the problem. She has no significant achievements to her name, less than a year in cabinet and very poor levels of recognition from voters. And she’s the best new prospect that they’ve got.

Which is why MPs have begun to forlornly re-evaluate their former prime ministers to see if they might stand a better chance. As they emphatically don’t, Sunak will end up fighting the election. But the ongoing fixation on the possibility of a Truss or Johnson comeback, the latter especially, reveals the extent of the troubles that the party will face in opposition. The next Conservative prime minister probably isn’t even in parliament yet and Badenoch, or whoever ends up leading the party in opposition, is going to struggle mightily to put together a presentable team.

It’s less clear than it was in 1997 where the next generation are going to come from. Younger graduates who vote Conservative are an endangered species. The talent pool in right-wing thinktanks is drying up. The party’s donors are mostly of a certain age. The Tories have always found a way to renew before, but this time it’s going to be harder than ever. If they can’t find a way forward beyond Johnson and Truss, they won’t deserve to.