Boris Johnson is gaining ground in his audacious bid to return to Downing Street despite critics warning he risks plunging the Conservatives into fresh chaos over the impending parliamentary inquiry into the Partygate scandal.
As the former prime minister raced back from his Caribbean holiday to drum up support among MPs, Rishi Sunak remained ahead and the favourite to win with close to 90 publicly declared backers, including Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid, and with his supporters claiming he had passed the threshold of 100 names required to get on the ballot paper.
However, Johnson won the support of six current cabinet ministers – Ben Wallace, Simon Clarke, Chris Heaton-Harris, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Alok Sharma and Anne-Marie Trevelyan – while the former home secretary Priti Patel is believed to be considering coming out in his favour.
Allies of Johnson boasted he would “easily” make the threshold of 100 MPs, and argued he would be a strong contender to win in a ballot of the 150,000 Tory members.
They said he was seeking a “unity pact” with Sunak that could avoid the contest having to go to a members’ vote.
But one rival leadership camp questioned whether he really would reach 100, amid reminders of the way his leadership tore the party apart when he was in Downing Street.
Neither Johnson nor Sunak have yet formally declared, while Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, became the first to announce she was standing.
Critics of the former prime minister said some Tory MPs would be likely to go independent or defect to another party if he won again.
One source close to the privileges committee of MPs – which is investigating whether Johnson lied to parliament over parties in Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid pandemic – said there was a “huge amount of damning material” against him.
Another MP source said the committee had collected vast amounts of written evidence that could be published shortly, and it was preparing to take oral evidence as soon as in the next 10 days, potentially sitting for four hours a day, three days a week for several weeks to get through it all.
They argued it would be a huge distraction for Johnson if he were to become prime minister, and risked reigniting public anger over the scandal that led to him and others being fined by police for breaking Covid rules during lockdown.
Jesse Norman, a senior Tory MP and Foreign Office minister, said returning to Johnson would be a disaster. “There are several very good potential candidates for Conservative leader. But choosing Boris now would be – and I say this advisedly – an absolutely catastrophic decision,” he said.
William Hague, the former party leader, told Times Radio that bringing back Johnson was the worst idea he had heard in his 46 years as a member of the Conservatives, and would cause a “death spiral” for the party.
If all three candidates make it on to the ballot with the backing of more than 100 MPs each, there is the potential for Sunak and Mordaunt between them to try to knock Johnson out of the contest.
Johnson has close to 50 publicly declared supporters. Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, is one of those organising for Johnson, while the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, who ruled himself out of the race despite his popularity with Tory members, said he “would lean towards” supporting Johnson.
“I think he will still have some questions to answer about that [Partygate] investigation,” Wallace said, but added: “He got a mandate and I think that’s an important thing for all of us to bear in mind.”
James Duddridge, a Johnson-supporting MP, told PA Media: “I’ve been in contact with the boss via WhatsApp. He’s going to fly back. He said: ‘I’m flying back, Dudders, we are going to do this. I’m up for it.’”
Allies of Johnson said they hoped a deal could be done with Sunak and that he wanted to sit down with his former chancellor, whose resignation over their differences triggered his departure from No 10 last month.
Johnson will argue that only he has the ability to win an election, despite an Opinium poll suggesting Sunak would do better against Labour’s Keir Starmer. Supporters of Sunak suggested a pact was unlikely but that the former chancellor would be willing to talk to anyone.
Some of Johnson’s MP backers think it might be possible to convince a “unity pact” cabinet to “get rid” of the privileges committee inquiry into Partygate by arguing that it would drag ministers, officials and advisers into giving evidence, and prolong public attention on the affair.
An incumbent prime minister would only be able to dismiss the inquiry by winning a motion in the House of Commons to stop it – or they could bring it to a halt by calling an election.
A senior former cabinet minister said the risk with Johnson was that “you never know where the next embarrassment is going to come from”. Apart from Partygate, there were questions over a donor funding his Downing Street flat refurbishment, and his failure to deal swiftly with lobbying and sexual harassment scandals.
Some Tory MPs have raised eyebrows at the former prime minister’s decision to go on a two-week holiday to the Caribbean, partly while parliament was sitting, and his willingness to let his post-premiership lifestyle be funded by rich Tory donors.
He has recently declared funding for two different types of accommodation from the JCB boss, Anthony Bamford, and his wife, Carole, in September and October worth £13,500. The Bamford family also hosted Johnson’s wedding party this summer, contributing more than £20,000.
A further £85,320 a year in office costs for the former prime minister were recently donated by a company run by Jamie Reuben, a son of David Reuben, one of the billionaire Reuben brothers property developers.
While Sunak remains the frontrunner, the idea that Johnson could feasibly return to No 10 is beginning to sink in among Conservative MPs who ousted him.
One senior backbench Tory said: “It looks to me like he’ll get the 100 nominations. And with the membership, I think it would be Boris. I really do. What has been instructive is the amount of emails I’ve had from my locals, not all of them party members admittedly, saying bring back Boris.
“There was quite a lot of anger over how he was deposed. So if it comes down to the members, I think he’s back in No 10.”