LONDON – On Monday, Conservative MP Boris Johnson resigned from his position as Foreign Secretary, in a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May.
He refused to inform staff within Number 10 where he was, as he posed for pictures signing his own resignation letter, to be distributed to the newspapers for publication the next day.
The manner of his resignation angered Downing Street so much they pre-announced his resignation, “spiking” his letter, and instructing his driver and security detail to leave.
Voices from across the globe joined in a chorus of disapproval of Johnson’s actions, with the Attorney General of Anguilla describing him as “the worst foreign secretary we’ve ever had,” continuing that he was “disinterested and out of his depth…he cared nothing for our situation”.
The British press was almost as damning, with only his former employers at the Telegraph giving his resignation a sympathetic treatment in Tuesday’s papers.
So has Johnson wrecked his own lifelong dream of becoming prime minister, or could there still be a route for him into power?
Some of the most harsh responses to Johnson’s resignation came from former colleagues. His former editor at the Telegraph Max Hastings wrote in a particularly scathing piece that “It is a common mistake to suppose Johnson a nice man. In reality he often behaves unpleasantly.”
Meanwhile his former chief spin doctor Guto Harri told the BBC that his former boss was “much diminished in terms of integrity, in terms of political courage and in terms of credibility,”
On Johnson’s future prospects, he added that “I used to think he would be fantastic at Number 10 but those days look a long time ago.”
However, Johnson’s career has been prematurely declared finished many times before and sources in the Conservative Party maintain he’s still preparing for a leadership bid, with his team already holding preparatory meetings.
He also retains a degree of popularity among party members, with a YouGov poll this week putting him as the “most likeable” and most likely to “share my political outlook” of all the main contenders to replace May.
However, his former allies and organisers of his 2016 bid for Conservative Party leadership think he may have missed his chance. When asked by Business Insider about his future leadership ambitions one replied simply that “he’s stuffed”, adding that the main issue surrounding his 2016 campaign, a lack support from newer intake MPs has only exacerbated since then. One MP suggested he would struggle to get a single nomination off of 2015 or 2017 intake MP, which now make up 98 of the 316 Conservative MPs in the Commons.
Speaking to Business Insider, Conservative Lord and Times Columnist Danny Finkelstein said: “He has all the problems he had last time around. An appeal to liberal conservatives undermined by his connections to Vote Leave, a lack of appeal to newer MPs and an inability to win over senior colleagues due to a lack of a grasp for detail.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg could hand Johnson a way back
Johnson’s poor attention to detail is a recurring talking point among Conservative MPs. “Imagine working in the civil service all your life trying to craft policy, then to be greeted by him as your minister,” one backbench MP told BI.
Foreign Office officials are particularly damning about their experience with some reportedly celebrating Johnson’s departure with champagne, calling it “liberation day”. As one backbench Conservative MP told BI “there was a reason Michael [Gove] abandoned him”.
Nevertheless, Johnson is not a politician without upsides. “He is one of the few supporters of hard Brexit that is easily recognisable to the general public, and is a good campaigner, which is a major concern to Conservative MPs”, explained one leading Conservative figure.
He could also be used as a stopper to a Rees-Mogg candidature, and if there is a large field of potentially more than a dozen candidates to be the next Conservative Prime Minister, then Johnson could come through the middle.
Rees-Mogg’s negative public image and lack of governmental experience, means that many Conservative MPs are keen to prevent him from getting through to the final stage of a leadership election, at which point the two most popular candidates would go to a ballot of all members, among whom Johnson remains strong.
However, Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group had over 80 attendees to their last meeting of MPs, and only 105 are needed to finish inside the top two of an MPs ballot, meaning that Rees-Mogg’s chances of reaching the final stages of a contest are increasing.
Johnson’s campaign would be reliant on soft-Brexiteers seeing him as the lesser of two evils, and a glut of second preferences from defeated hard Brexiteer candidates, and pragmatic support from soft Brexiteers and Tory Remainers.
However, with many of his inner circle of previous campaigns finding themselves won over by other potential challengers — like Conservative Party Vice Chair James Cleverley — the route back to power looks narrow, if still just about passable, for the former Home Secretary.