‘Knives Out’: Will Boris be back in 2023?

As a dire electoral future beckons the Tories, desperate times call for desperate measures, lighting the touchpaper for a possible return of Boris Johnson.

‘Out with the old and in with the new,’ is a popular expression uttered in the New Year to signify positive change. But when it comes to warring Tories looking down the barrel of electoral trouncing, perhaps a more fitting message would be ‘out with the new and in with the old.’

Yep, as the former disgraced PM returns from partying in the Cotswolds over the New Year, there’s plenty within the Tory ranks getting excited about his potential comeback. Afterall, with Tory polls showing Johnson is more popular than Sunak and Labour looking on course to win a majority at the next general election,  the realisation that without him, the country’s ‘natural party of government’ is heading for a thrashing, is dawning on plenty.

Rishi Sunak was supposed to restore trust, integrity, unity, and calm in the party, but, in actual fact, quite the opposite has happened.

Amid floundering poll ratings and huge economic challenges, the unelected and unceremonious arrival of Rishi Sunak was greeted by a rolling convoy of Tory rebellions. Just weeks into the job, the PM was forced into a series of U-turns on housebuilding targets, onshore windfarms, and fracking, as he struggles to control jittery backbenchers.

And jittery they are, because unless some serious faith isn’t restored in the party among voters, waking up out of a job after the next general election is becoming a likelier prospect for Tory MPs. Some have even privately admitted they are going to lose the next general election.

As various Tory tribes grow increasingly unhappy with Sunak, and Tory party members cancel their membership, complaining he “has no mandate,” a new Tory pressure group has arrived to “restore democracy,” and, possibly, bring back Boris Johnson. 

Enter the Conservative Democratic Organisation

The Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) was launched through Conservative Post, a grassroots news outlet which organised a petition in the summer for Johnson to be included on the ballot for the leadership election. The group was started in December by former MEP and Brexiteer David Campbell Bannerman after Sunak was appointed leader without a membership vote. The ‘coronation’ of Sunak just a month after he was rejected in the leadership contest, has “finally ended members’ faith in any party democracy,” a CDO strategy document informs.

In a statement published on ConservativeHome on January 2, the organisation’s leaders say the group has had a “hugely positive response” from many Conservative parliamentarians who are “sympathetic to the frustration felt by many grassroots members.”

While refuting claims they aim to return Johnson to No 10, the group’s leaders accuse Sunak of orchestrating his own coronation after he was rejected by members. They argue that the party’s constitution must be overhauled to give members an active voice on how it is run.

Pledging to ‘take back control’ – where have we heard that mantra before, oh yes, it was barked by Johnson during the 2019 election – the CDO is pushing to set up a branch in every constituency in the country.

While the group has been belittled by some ministers, described by one as a “budget front organisation for Bring Back Boris,” it is backed by some big names, notably hard-line Brexiteers and Boris Johnson loyalists.

Priti Patel, a Johnson supporter, is supporting the campaign, describing the grassroots as the “heart and soul” of the party.

“Party members are committed to our values of freedom, enterprise and opportunity and we need to empower them to have more say over our policies and candidates. That will make us stronger, more successful in government, and boost our membership numbers,” said the former home secretary.

Far from bold promises of restoring ‘unity’ to the party, Tory grassroots were left fuming following Sunak’s coronation as leader, with thousands threatening to leave after being denied a vote.

But then Tory party membership numbers have been in long-term decline for decades. In 2013, membership was down to 134,000 compared to 253,000 in 2005. Numbers paying to join the Tories were thought to have plunged as low as 70,000, but in early 2021, during Johnson’s premiership, the Tories bigged up what they claimed to be a ‘remarkable boost to party membership’ to around 200,000, because “everyone loves the prime minister.”

By adopting an unrelenting upbeat and fun-loving image, allied to formidable campaigning skills that saw off Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson successfully managed reach parts of the electorate more conventional Tory ministers have failed to reach. But when you consider that even in the height of Johnson’s popularity, the party only managed to bounce back to 200,000 members – a mere scrap of the 564,000-plus that Labour membership surged to under Jeremy Corbyn – bigging up rising membership figures under Johnson was a rather pathetic self-embellishment.

Nonetheless, support for Boris Johnson persists among grassroot Tory members.

Amid the frenzied speculation that he might make a comeback following the humiliating resignation of Liz Truss, just six weeks after he left office, a poll showed that over 90 percent of party members would have voted for Johnson to be back in No 10, had they been given the opportunity.

And jittery Tories are recognising that Johnson’s dethronement could well cast the party to electoral oblivion for at least a generation. This week, Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, and key Johnson ally, launched a scathing attack on Sunak, accusing him of abandoning key manifesto pledges. She warned that it would be “almost impossible to face the electorate” in the next generation and “expect voters to believe or trust our manifesto commitment.” Dorries went on to list the U-turns on Twitter.

It is within this climate that the CDO could hold some weight, especially when we consider the deep pockets funding it.

Lord Peter Cruddas

City tycoon and avid Brexiteer Lord Peter Cruddas is the CDO’s president and treasurer. Cruddas was appointed Tory party co-treasurer in June 2011. Less than a year later, he resigned following a leak in the Sunday Times that he had offered access to the then prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne, in exchange for cash donation of between £100,000 and £250,000. Despite the ‘cash for access’ scandal, in 2020 Cruddas was nominated for a peerage by Boris Johnson, in what swelled the ranks of Brexit-backing Tories in the House of Lords. 

Described as the “richest man in the City of London” with a reported wealth of more than £1bn, Cruddas was a founder of the Vote Leave campaign, having reportedly donated  £1.5m to the campaign group in the run up to the 2016 referendum.

The Tory peer has donated more than £3.5m to the Conservative Party. Pledging we “need a Brexiteer as our next PM,” Cruddas handed more than £50,000 in funding for Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign in the summer of 2019.

Johnson even faced legal action over his decision to give a peerage to the billionaire party donor. Campaigners questioned the legality of the Tories receiving a further £500,000 just three days after he took his seat in the upper chamber in February 2021.

In July 2022, Lord Cruddas launched a ‘bring back Boris’ petition, which he urged party members to sign. Around that time, the former Tory treasurer had lunch with Johnson at Chequers where he claimed the then PM had told him he was “rooting for your campaign to succeed.”

Despite blatant Brexit and Boris-backing credentials, the CDO denies that its true intention is to restore the former prime minister to the leadership of the party.

“Our campaign is not about Boris and these comments are designed as a distraction from our main cause, which is to change the party constitution so that no future prime minister can ever be coronated in the future without the members having their say. Especially as Rishi was already rejected by members and they have been disenfranchised from the leadership campaign,” Cruddas told iNews.

While in one breath the group claims it is not an anti-Sunak outfit, in the next it moans that it is “fed up with having left-wing candidates and a left-wing agenda imposed on us from above – we are in the Conservative Party, not Labour, for a reason. But we are not backing any one policy; or one person.”

From where I’m sitting, it looks remarkably like the CDO is an attempt to organise the albeit small Tory membership to lobby against Sunak, especially if the May local elections turn out to be disastrous for them. This could then in turn put pressure on MPs to defenestrate Sunak, and, potentially, leave the door open for Johnson.

The rise of Reform

Then there’s the rise of Reform. Tory nerves are jangling that November’s tax-raising budget, coupled with policies over immigration and Brexit, could pave the way for a Reform invasion.

The CDO in fact seems wrapped up in paranoia about Nigel Farage and the Brexit party’s successor taking Tory votes from the right.

Cruddas claims the Conservative party is under threat from a right-wing insurgency after a “drag to the left” under Sunak. The CDO’s president and treasurer insists the Tories were “no longer a centre-right party” under the current prime minister. The Tory peer and high-profile donor is even refusing to back the party financially, until it changes course.

Perhaps the lobbyists should have reason to be fearful of Reform and Farage snatching votes from peeved Tory members. An Opinium poll in December showed that support for Reform is up to 8 percent of the vote, and is almost neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems.

separate poll launched the same month showed Reform is polling at almost half the Conservative vote share.

No doubt the comments of Richard Tice, the current leader of Reform, inflamed nerves among Conservatives, when he said the Tories had “betrayed the country.”

“I want the Tories out,” he said. “I want them destroyed. They have ruined our economy. People are underestimating us. They don’t believe we will stand in 630 seats. I have already got 600.”

Lord Cruddas has not held back in voicing concerns about a hard-right insurgency.

“There is a conduit for right-leaning, centre-right people to find a new home and that’s the Reform party, especially if Farage comes out and says he is going to lead the Reform party,” he told the Observer, adding:

“What you’re seeing today is a coup and a hijacking of the Conservative party by centre-left leaning people. The senior Conservatives that I’ve spoken to are also frustrated. Something’s going to come to a head because the members don’t want Rishi Sunak. The odds are stacked against him.

“So long as the party is a centre-left party, then I don’t consider it a Conservative party. I will donate to the Conservative party, the true Conservative party, which is a centre-right party. I will not donate to any centre-left party.”

Of course, the hard-line CDO Brexiteers’ fears about Rishi Sunak being a left of centre prime minister differ somewhat to what he really is. His extreme wealth, links to right-wing think-tanks, and right-wing policies, including opposition to trans equality, confirms Sunak is a long way from the ‘centre-left leaning’ politician the CDO are painting him as. It could be argued that the ardent Brexiteers’ real gripes lie with fears about Sunak’s possible softer stance on Brexit. Afterall, all hell nearly broke loose among Eurosceptics when Jeremy Hunt said he was seeking ‘unfettered trade’ with the EU, and the Sunday Times splashed a report that senior figures are seeking a closer trade relationship with Europe.

Just this week, Lord Cruddas shared Brexit panic, claiming the prime minister is   “showing his true colours” as plans to remove 4,000 pieces of EU-legislation from the statute book are said to be facing a delay.

Then there was the tax-raising budget in November, which saw Sunak’s popularity among Tory membership plummet. In the wake of the Autumn Statement, the monthly league table of Cabinet approval rating published by ConservativeHome, put Sunak sixth from the bottom.

Couple the unpopular tax rises with his role in Johnson’s downfall, when he resigned as chancellor, and there’s plenty that many members of the party have to dislike about the prime minister.

But will disgruntlement towards Sunak really be enough to pave the way for the revival of the arrogant elitist that is Boris Johnson, whose constant stream of lies, gaffes and scandals accumulated in a rebellion among his own MPs, a forced resignation, and only a handful of diehard loyalists, namely Rees-Mogg, Dorries and Jenkyns, attending his Downing Street farewell?

There’s plenty within Tory ranks, perhaps those with better memories – and more sense – who believe the party should move on from Boris. Thinking along these lines is Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, who questions whether Johnson would actually stand. “Could Johnson really win a parliamentary ballot? Or might Conservative members impose him on unwilling Tory MPs (which proved less than successful in the case of Truss)? Above all, is it likely that he would stand in the first place? For all his reputation for recklessness, Johnson has a prudent streak. Both last year and in 2016 he decided not to stand, bruising the feelings of some of those who had invested hope in his candidacy,” Goodman writes.

If he did run, would the jokes, the ‘bant’ and the campaigning pizzazz be enough to save the Tories?

It’s a scarily possible prospect. Let’s just hope the upcoming inquiry into whether he deceived Parliament over the Covid Downing Street parties puts a definitive spanner in the ‘bring back Boris’ works. 

Right-wing media watch – Tory media ramps up Boris adulation

Admittedly, I was somewhat inaccurate when I said only a handful of Johnson diehards were with him to the end. The intransigents were of course accompanied by the Tory press, which was also with him to his political death. 

“Throughout his life, Mr Johnson has repeatedly defied the odds and he may well do so once again,” pined the Express, following the resignation of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid in July 2022.

“Boris stands head and shoulders above his would-be assassins,” gushed the Mail in the same week.

The same newspapers that have been an active and willing arm right through his colourful (to put it pleasantly), and scandalous (to be more precise) political career, remain so today.

‘Boris Johnson urged to return ‘bigger and better’ – YOU VOTED’ splashed the Express in reference to the former PM’s commitment to fighting for his seat at the next general election, and a poll by the newspaper which reveals 55 percent support Johnson returning to frontline politics. The results are not surprising really given that the poll asked the readers of the unashamedly pro-Boris Express. The bigger surprise is perhaps that it wasn’t more than 55 percent.

Predictably, the same newspaper has been spouting anti-Sunak rage. The prime minister has been accused of attempting to “reverse Brexit”, says the Express, in an article centred on the claims of Tory peer Lord Cruddas that Sunak is “showing his true colours as plans to remove 4,000 pieces of EU-legislation from the statute book are said to be facing a delay.

Taking a similar swipe at Sunak while effusing Johnson, was a report in the Mail. The story alludes to the former PM’s comments that “things will get better” in 2023, while pointing to a recent poll that shows Boris Johnson is more popular among Tory members than Rishi Sunak, his chancellor Jeremy Hunt, and his predecessor Liz Truss.

The original source of the poll was ConservativeHome, which surveyed 3,300 Tory party members on their ‘minister of the year.’ Defence secretary Ben Wallace came out on top among ConHome Tory member readers, by a long way.

The Times leapt on the results of the survey, reporting with fervour on Sunak’s disappointing fifth position finish in the poll.

 ‘Tory poll shows Boris Johnson is more popular than Rishi Sunak’ read the headline, followed by an opening paragraph that gloats about Sunak trailing both Johnson and Suella Braverman in votes that prove he has “yet to win over his party’s support.”

“Those loyal to Johnson, who was in office before Liz Truss, blamed his ousting on Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor prompted an exodus of ministers exhausted by scandal,” says the Times.

The article admits that many Tory members have refused to back Sunak because of his decision to raise taxes and his disloyalty towards Johnson. “That members still seem to prefer Johnson is testament to the bitterness among many about Sunak’s perceived past disloyalty,” it continues.

Adding to the irony of the Tory press’s persistent adoration of the former disgraced PM is the fact that as a journalist himself, Boris Johnson was the worst kind. Not only did he often spout controversial comments about ethnic minorities, gay people, and women, but he invented quotations, breaking a cardinal rule of journalism. Yet his ignominious career as a journalist – which incidentally pulled him in £275,000 a year for a weekly column in the Telegraph, a salary he referred to as “chicken feed” – only seemed to heighten his popularity as a politician. It also seemed to set the tone for Tory media’s reporting on him, which was prepared to ditch its moral code by defending a PM caught up in scandals over lies, corruption and cronyism.

The right-wing media’s continued worship of the disgraced minister and his potential return, confirms nothing has changed. As when it comes to Boris Johnson, obstinate support will never languish.

Woke bashing of the week – Mail pins NHS woes on ‘woke non-jobs’

The NHS is in its worst crisis ever. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine says it believes this will have been the worst winter for hospital bed occupancy and emergency care delays.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail is intent on spewing contemptuous drivel about ‘woke non-jobs’, implying they are adding to the health service’s problems.

‘NHS bosses come under fire for spending millions on ‘woke non-jobs’ as frontline workers strike for better pay,’ hollered the headline of an article published over Christmas.

The author contends that health bosses were “under fire” for “shelling out millions of pounds on ‘woke non-jobs’ as frontline workers strike for better pay.” The Mail says it can reveal that more than £1 million worth of ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ related positions are on offer in hospitals and trusts across England and Wales, with “most salaries dwarfing that of the average nurse.”

Hmm… £1m on jobs aimed at reducing workplace discrimination and promoting good relations and practices towards minority groups out of a planned spending budget for the Department of Health and Social Care in England of £180.2 billion in 2022/23, isn’t exactly a headline-grabbing figure, unless, of course, you’re the Daily Mail.

And then perhaps if nursing staff weren’t effectively working one day a week for free after a decade of real-terms pay cuts, ‘mindfulness’ professionals would not been needed to help those facing unprecedented stress and burnout. But naturally, the Mail doesn’t dwell on that point, as for them, it’s just another chance spew out more woke-bashing content.

And guess who the person quoted in the report is, whose doing all the ranting. Wait for it… our old friend Sir John Hayes. The chairman of the Common Sense Group of 60 Tory MPs and Daily Mail columnist claims that many NHS roles with ‘equality’ or ‘diversity’ in the titles often become “meaningless or even worse.”

Sadly, the ‘non-story’ is part of the newspaper’s generally hostile attitude to the NHS. They pretend to be in favour of our health service but use any opportunity to criticise it and undermine its reputation.

In November 2022, columnist Sarah Vine wrote an especially insulting article, which asked why GPs are ‘still using Covid as an excuse not to see patients.’ It likened obtaining a GP appointment to ‘seeking an audience with the Pope’ and claimed that ‘GPs seem to have unilaterally decided they don’t want to see patients anymore.’

In response to the offending piece, the British Medical Association (BMA) wrote to the Mail to express its ‘anger at attacks and smears’ against GPs, in what was described as the ‘latest GP-bashing article published by the newspaper.’ 

Then there’s ‘Lord’ Daniel Hannan – why are all Mail columnists Lords? – a shamelessly outspoken NHS-basher. In 2009, the Conservative peer, who writes for a number of right-wing outlets, including the Mail and the Telegraph, appeared on Fox News in the US and said that the NHS was a “60-year-old mistake“, while urging Americans not to adopt a similar system if they wanted efficient, effective healthcare. The controversial Hannan also co-authored a book, Direct Democracy, which claims the NHS “fails to meet public expectations” and is “no longer relevant in the 21st century.”

Sigh, these right-wing newspapers and their columnists, who style themselves as a bulwark of middle England morality, seem to be using every opportunity to undermine public faith in the NHS. And incorporating the much-loved and needed health institution into the ‘anti-woke culture war’ creates an easy distraction.

A modern-day kind of ‘bread and circuses’ I guess, with no bread and not much of a circus.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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