Boris Johnson allies plotting against Sunak risk a 1997-style Tory defeat, former Brexit secretary warns

Former Tory minister David Davis says ordinary voters will not support the Conservatives if Boris Johnson and his acolytes ‘actively undermine’ the prime minister in the run up to the next election

Kate Devlin
Politics and Whitehall Editor
Thursday 19 January 2023 00:05 GMT
Tory MP David Davis tells Boris Johnson to quit: ‘In the name of God, go’

Boris Johnson’s comeback risks a 1997-style landslide election defeat for the Conservative Party if his loyalists insist on his return to No 10.

That is the stark warning issued by former Brexit secretary minister David Davis as he approaches the anniversary of his dramatic demand for Mr Johnson to quit as prime minister, at the height of last year’s Partygate scandal.

Writing for The Independent, Mr Davis warns that while the “continual drumbeat” calling for Johnson’s return would fail, it was “corroding” the party’s electoral chances.

“When Tory MPs asked me last year if the next election would be a repeat of 1997, I used to say ‘no’,” he says. “That was until Boris’s acolytes started calling for his return. Now I add ‘it won’t be 1997 unless you make it so’.

“When the party in government actively undermines the prime minister, and vilifies its own leadership, why should ordinary electors vote for them?”

Opinion polls suggest Labour now has a 20-point lead over the Conservatives, while one survey last month forecast the party could lose almost 300 seats – and hold just 69 – at the next election.

The last time there was an electoral win of that scale was in 1997 when Tony Blair’s winning majority of 179 consigned the Conservatives to the opposition benches for the next 13 years.

David Davis addressing Boris Johnson during PMQs with his ‘in the name of God, go’ speech
David Davis addressing Boris Johnson during PMQs with his ‘in the name of God, go’ speech (Parliament TV)

Mr Davis says that if Mr Johnson’s “foolish pipe dream” of a return continues, history will repeat itself and the party will be in the wilderness for years.

“Boris’s old acolytes are predicting armageddon at the polls in a way that makes you think that they are wishing for it to be true,” he says.

“The continual drumbeat calling for Johnson’s return will fail, but in the process it is corroding the party’s chances at the next election.

“It is entirely within the reach of a quietly competent Sunak government to win reelection. But if Boris’s foolish pipe dream of a resurrection continues, the same will happen again – and we will be out of power for a decade once more.”

A year ago this week Mr Davis stunned Westminster when he stood up in the House of Commons and told Mr Johnson: “In the name of God, go,” over Partygate and his lack of credibility.

His call echoed words said to Neville Chamberlain shortly before he left office, to be replaced by Mr Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill.

Mr Davis said he expected to make enemies from his intervention but found the opposite, with a warm response from the public on his stance.

In his exclusive piece for The Independent today, he writes that the position the party is in now “is largely the responsibility of the Boris camp and its political heirs and successors”, adding how the former prime minister presided over a 10 per cent decline in the party’s ratings, before Liz Truss caused equal damage during her short tenure.

Last weekend The Independent revealed a bitter split between Johnson supporters who want to restore him as party leader with one faction pushing for power to be taken away from MPs, who ousted Mr Johnson last summer, while a second camp dismissed the idea.

Boris Johnson acolytes believe the former PM will be the ‘Conservative Harold Wilson – he will serve two distinct terms’
Boris Johnson acolytes believe the former PM will be the ‘Conservative Harold Wilson – he will serve two distinct terms’ (UK Parliament)

His supporters predict Mr Johnson will be the “Conservative Harold Wilson – he will serve two distinct terms”. Sources close to Mr Johnson insist he fully supports the government.

But the news this week that he is writing a memoir that will include his time in Downing Street will do little to dampen speculation around his future.

Friends of Mr Johnson have suggested he may have to strike a deal with Rishi Sunak, however, and agree not to challenge his leadership in return for a safer seat at the next general election.

He is dogged by claims surrounding Parytgate ahead of next month’s inquiry and faced claims last week that he had quipped during a leaving do held at No 10 while Covid lockdown restrictions were still in place that he was attending the “most un-socially distanced party in the UK right now”.

He also faced claims that he had secured an £800,000 line of credit while prime minister, backed by a millionaire relative who wanted to run a quango.

While senior military figures criticised him over a planned trip to Ukraine, with one accusing him of “looking for publicity” in a war zone.

A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said: “Boris Johnson is fully supporting the government. Any suggestion to the contrary is untrue.”

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