Boris Johnson returned to Britain on Saturday as he weighs an ambitious bid for a second term as prime minister just weeks after being forced to resign, with some colleagues warning that his return could cause more political instability.
Potential replacements for Prime Minister Liz Truss, who abruptly stepped down on Thursday after only six weeks in office, were embarking on a frenzied weekend of campaigning to gain enough nominations to enter the leadership race before Monday’s deadline.
Johnson, who was on vacation in the Caribbean when Truss resigned, has not publicly remarked on a bid for his old job. He has the backing of dozens of Conservative lawmakers, but he needs 100 nominations to be considered.
The trade minister James Duddridge said on Friday Johnson had told him he was “up for it”.
Some passengers on the plane to Britain booed Johnson, according to a Sky News correspondent on the flight, which arrived in London on Saturday morning.
It would be a remarkable political comeback for the former journalist and ex-Mayor of London, who left Downing Street steeped in scandal but complaining that his colleagues “changed the rules halfway through” a contest – a dig at Conservative MPs who did not allow him to finish a full term.
Former defence minister Penny Mordaunt was the first candidate to officially declare her intention to run for Conservative Party leader, although Johnson and Rishi Sunak, his former finance minister, led possible candidates ahead of voting next week.
The prospect of the return of Johnson to government is a polarising issue for many in the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided after seeing off four prime ministers in six years.
For some Conservative lawmakers, Johnson is a vote winner, able to appeal across the country not only with his celebrity but also with his brand of energetic optimism.
For others he is a toxic figure and the question is whether he can convince the dozens of lawmakers who abandoned him that he is now the person who can unite the party and turn around its flagging fortunes.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Stephenson said on Saturday that Johnson is a “tried and tested prime minister” who delivered Brexit, was able to boast of a fast COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, and was among the most vocal supporters of Ukraine.
However, his colleague Andrew Bridgen has stated that if Johnson returns, he will consider quitting from the parliamentary group and has warned the Conservatives against establishing a “personality cult” around the former prime minister. Dominic Raab, a former foreign minister under Johnson, warned that if he returned, the party would go “backwards.”
Former Conservative leader William Hague said on Friday that Johnson’s return was possibly the worst notion he has heard in nearly 50 years as a member of the party. He predicted a “death spiral” for the Conservatives.
If Johnson receives the necessary number of nominations, he would likely face Sunak, who resigned as his finance minister in July, claiming that his former boss was unwilling to make tough decisions.
Sunak is the first leadership candidate to hit the threshold of 100 nominations to enter the contest before Monday’s deadline, according to media reports.