As Boris Johnson jetted in to Gatwick on Saturday morning, the hopes of the nation flew with him: it was just that those hopes, as expressed by formerly supportive newspapers, were that he never goes anywhere near Westminster again.
Rather than welcoming back a conquering hero, the front page of the once-friendly Daily Mail suggested Johnson should humbly meet with his former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and cook up a plan to unite the riven Tory factions inside the House of Commons and across the country. Quite a change from the days, not so long ago, when Johnson was being hailed as a charismatic leader who had correctly called all the big decisions through the duration of the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The newspaper’s coverage of the “fight for the soul of the Tories” did acknowledge the line-up of political “big beasts” already standing behind the former PM, who was ousted only three months ago. But much more newsprint was given over to the dangers of a sequel to his spell in high office.
Conservative backbenchers, the Daily Mail’s chief political correspondent warned, would revolt and an unwelcome general election would become unavoidable. On the Mail’s inside pages, editors also tellingly chose to reprint the infamous photograph of Johnson drinking wine with his wife and his controversial former adviser Dominic Cummings on the verandah behind No 10. It served as an eye-catching reminder that he remains under investigation by the parliamentary standards committee, and could be suspended, or even permanently pushed out, if it is ruled that he knowingly misled parliament.
On the Mail’s comment pages the broadcaster Andrew Neil devoted a full-page column to the case for Sunak. It is time, the headline urged, “for the Tories to put the country first and vote for Rishi, the man the markets trust”. The alternative, for Neil, would be to go back to an untrustworthy regime: “Boris might get older, but he never gets wiser. To restore Johnson is to press the repeat button,” he threatened.
For most holidaymakers who land back at the airport the top worry is whether they locked the backdoor properly before they left home, but for Johnson, returning from a Caribbean break, the nagging question was whether he can get back into Downing Street again. A glance at the front page of the Daily Telegraph, his former and perhaps future employer, will have done nothing to encourage him. The paper’s headline “Sunak races to secure majority of Tory MPs” accompanied a photograph of the former chancellor striding forward purposefully. On page three a headline suggested that one-time leadership hopefuls Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch may now join forces to support a swift “coronation” of Johnson. But readers were alerted to the perils of this coup from the right, rather than told to see it as a positive move.
The Times, the organ that sacked the young Johnson for making up a quote in the late 1980s, echoed the former Conservative leader William Hague. His threat that Johnson’s return to the role of PM would “prove fatal” and result in a “death spiral” for his parliamentary colleagues on government benches dominated its coverage.
Ever with an eye to the markets, the Financial Times also sounded a claxon. “Investors and MPs alarmed by idea of Johnson’s return to No 10” the front page boomed, adding that both gilts and sterling were “wobbling” at the prospect.