The prospect of Boris Johnson returning to Downing Street is dominating debate at the start of the second Conservative party leadership contest of the year amid fevered speculation the former premier is plotting a comeback.
Only six weeks after he left No 10, forced out by his own MPs after a slew of scandals, supporters are calling on Johnson to return from holiday in the Dominican Republic and run again for a second shot at leading the country.
Various news outlets are keeping tallies of Johnson’s backers, with “unnamed” supporters suggesting he has as many as 50 MPs behind him, with others putting the number closer to 38.
The founder of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday that Johnson could receive as many as 140 nominations to run for the leadership – surpassing the 100 threshold set by the party’s 1922 Committee.
“Boris Johnson is very popular amongst grassroots members and Rishi Sunak, the other leading contender for the crown, is much less popular,” Montgomerie told Today.
“I wouldn’t want to make any cast-iron prediction in this crazy world of politics at the moment but I think Boris Johnson returning is a very real possibility.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg on Friday became the first Cabinet minister to publicly back Johnson. The business secretary, a staunch loyalist of the former prime minister, tweeted a graphic that said “I’m Backing Boris” alongside the hashtag “BORISorBUST”.
But as many supporters of Johnson called for his return, his critics have also made their feelings known.
The Tory MP Crispin Blunt said Johnson was not the person to restore the reputation of the Conservative party as he called for the former chancellor Sunak to take over as leader.
“I don’t think we can go back there for the next two years,” the former minister told Sky News. “Boris Johnson has the most astonishing set of skills but there are one or two weaknesses kicking around in that personality and they were fairly brutally exposed.
“He is probably not the character to restore our reputation for the next two years because of that controversy.”
Blunt said a Johnson comeback would mean the party would be “probably straight back in the pickle we were in when he left office”.
Sir David Lidington, who served as a Cabinet Office minister when Theresa May was prime minister, said Johnson’s time in office ended with 60 ministers and parliamentary private secretaries saying “they did not feel they could remain in his government and that he was not fit to lead an effective administration”.
Lidington told Today: “We do need competence now at a time of great economic challenge for this country. Boris Johnson has always been somebody who has focused on the big picture, not on detail.
“He is not really interested in the detail of governing and nor when he was prime minister did he appoint a couple of ministers with delegated authority on his behalf to get things done; instead we had bunches of aides in No 10 busy briefing the media and shouting at each other most of the time.”
Several Tories have come out in support of Sunak as the successor to Liz Truss, who resigned on Thursday after only 45 days in office, making her the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister.
The ministers Robert Jenrick and Claire Coutinho and backbenchers Guy Opperman, Siobhan Baillie, Angela Richardson and Robin Walker have all said they believe Sunak is the right man for the job, after he finished runner-up in the summer’s leadership contest.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, accused the Conservative party of playing a “game of pass the parcel” with the country’s most important political positions. Any new Tory leader would have “no mandate” to rule, she told Sky News.
She said: “The longer the Conservatives are in power, the less fit they are to govern. They can’t just pass around being prime minister and being chancellor like it is some sort of game of pass the parcel.
“They have done huge damage now to our economy, to our global standing in the world and it is time for a general election to choose a government who can provide the stability and the leadership that the country desperately needs.”