When Boris Johnson said on Friday that he was quitting parliament “for now”, seldom can two words have been freighted with such political menace.
Johnson is leaving parliament in a blaze of Trumpian anger, but he is not going away. Viewed from Downing Street, Johnson is now a dangerous maverick, intent on doing whatever he can to bring down prime minister Rishi Sunak.
This is personal. Sunak and the Whitehall machine stopped Johnson handing out honours to a number of the ex-premier’s acolytes, including a proposed knighthood for his father, Stanley.
Johnson also blames Sunak for his downfall, arguing that his former chancellor stopped him spending and cutting taxes as he fought to stay in No 10 last year.
Sunak’s resignation as chancellor hastened Johnson’s political demise. “Spicy” is how one cabinet minister described Johnson’s move on Friday night.
Some Tory MPs on Friday night told the Financial Times that Johnson was “finished”, that he is a busted flush who jumped before he was pushed by the parliamentary committee investigating the “partygate” scandal.
“Good riddance,” said one former Tory cabinet minister. Another former minister said: “The whole thing is sickening, including his honours list.”
But Johnson can still cause serious trouble. The fact that he and his political soulmate Nadine Dorries are both stepping down as MPs with immediate effect is the first threat to the prime minister.
The last thing Sunak needs is two parliamentary by-elections, both of which will be in Labour’s sights. Both contests are expected to take place before the summer break.
Dorries’s Mid Bedfordshire seat would be a rock-solid Tory seat in normal times with a majority of 24,664 at the 2019 election, but Labour will be confident of securing an upset in these circumstances.
Johnson’s Uxbridge seat in west London looks certain to fall to Labour. Johnson’s majority of 7,210 in 2019 would have been tough to defend at the next general election.
There was already talk of Johnson doing the “chicken run” from his seat before next year’s election — now that speculation is running at fever pitch in Tory circles.
The theory goes that the Tories lose the by-elections in both Uxbridge and Mid Beds, but that Dorries’s old constituency will be looking for a big hitter to win it back from Labour at the general election.
Step forward Boris Johnson? “The idea of Boris moving to Nadine’s seat is absolutely what people are talking about — 100 per cent,” said one senior Tory official.
Rather than face the ignominy of being booted out of his seat as a result of the partygate scandal, Johnson exited claiming that he is the victim of a rigged parliamentary process, in echoes of tactics deployed in the US by Donald Trump.
If he regenerated as MP for Mid Beds at the next election, Johnson would be following in the footsteps of his hero Winston Churchill, who regularly swapped parliamentary seats.
Another option being discussed by Tory MPs would be for Johnson to seek selection as a candidate in his old safe Tory seat of Henley. In any scenario, he will not make life easy for Sunak.
If the Tories lose the next election and Sunak quits as party leader, Johnson would also be in a position to emulate Churchill in 1945 in leading the Tories in opposition and seeking to return them to power.
It may seem fanciful, but so too has been Johnson’s career. Tory MPs have learned never to bet against a politician with massive appeal among the party grassroots.
Few Tory MPs believe this is a moment to write Johnson’s political obituary. His decision to quit parliament immediately was rather a chance to lash out at Sunak and leave open the possibility of his return.
Many Tory MPs are sick of the drama, which they believe is helping to undermine whatever chance Sunak had of uniting the party before next year’s elections.
Johnson, former journalist and ex-London mayor, was the driving force behind Brexit and won an 80-seat majority in 2019 as Tory leader.
His time in office coincided with the Covid crisis. The lockdown-breaking culture engulfed him and hastened his departure as prime minister last autumn.
Johnson has recently cut a lonely figure at Westminster and was one of only 22 Tory MPs who voted against Sunak’s plan to rewrite the post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland.
His parliamentary fan club has shrivelled in recent months, but rumours circulated at Westminster on Friday night that other hardcore “Boris-ites” might also quit. None, however, confirmed that this was their intention.
But with Johnson comes chaos. For Sunak, a prime minister seeking to restore order, that can only mean trouble.