Boris Johnson’s allies signalled on Monday that the former UK prime minister wanted to focus on ensuring US support for Ukraine in Washington remained strong, while promoting his levelling-up agenda at home, after failing in his bid to secure a swift return to Downing Street.
In his statement explaining why he had pulled out of the race to replace his successor Liz Truss as Conservative party leader, Johnson hinted he had no plans to step away from politics for good. “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said.
He added that he believed he could have won a general election in 2024 and blamed new prime minister Rishi Sunak and his other leadership rival Penny Mordaunt for not agreeing a deal “in the national interest”.
Many senior Tories were sceptical that he even had enough support to get on the ballot, which required the backing of more than 100 Conservative MPs. Instead, his comments were seen as an opening salvo to remind Sunak — whose decision to quit as chancellor was widely seen as the tipping point that forced Johnson to resign in July — that the former prime minister was not giving up the limelight.
Johnson insisted he had 102 MPs backing him, a total that Nigel Adams, a close ally of the former prime minister, said had been independently verified by the party’s 1922 committee that oversees party leadership elections. “Mr Johnson could have proceeded to the ballot had he chosen to do so,” he said on Monday.
One minister close to Johnson said he was “still pretty bitter about it all, he [felt] he could have come back and saved the party. But the MPs simply weren’t there yet.”
For that reason alone, a return to the cabinet seems unlikely, despite suggestions he could serve under Sunak in an effort to unite the party. “It feels like a non-starter, there is no expectation he will be asked to return,” one friend said.
Close allies said that, instead, Johnson wants to put the position he built while in office, as one of the main drivers of western backing for Ukraine in its war against Russia, to good use. They said he planned to spend more time in Washington DC to lobby for continued bipartisan US support for Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials were shocked last week after a senior Republican suggested that future assistance for Kyiv could be limited if the party wins the House of Representatives in November’s US midterm elections. Other senior Republicans have since pushed back against reducing financial and military support for Ukraine.
The friend of Johnson added: “There is no formal role yet but Boris is very worried about the situation in Ukraine. He believes that the US and US defence spending is the best force for military success in the war and wants to make sure support does not slip away.” The US is by far Ukraine’s biggest donor.
Sunak hinted at a possible international role for the former prime minister over the weekend when he said he hoped Johnson continued “to contribute to public life at home and abroad.” Some Whitehall officials have discussed the possibility of Johnson taking up a role as an international envoy, potentially aiding with Ukraine’s reconstruction effort, but discussions have not advanced to a formal stage.
Domestically, the former prime minister is expected to hold Sunak to account to ensure he delivers on the so-called levelling-up agenda aimed at tackling regional inequality. One MP close to Johnson said he intended to remain “focused on the [delivering for] the new coalition of voters after the Brexit vote and ensure the Tory party continues to appeal to its new base.”
Yet it is unclear whether Johnson will remain in the House of Commons. He faces an investigation by the privileges’ committee into whether he knowingly misled parliament over the Covid rule breaking “partygate” scandal in Downing Street while he was prime minister.
During his brief leadership bid, he insisted he would co-operate with the committee’s investigations, which will begin with televised proceedings next month.
If Johnson is found guilty by the committee, he may face a suspension from the House of Commons that could lead to a recall petition by his constituents and a by-election that he might struggle to win.
One person close to Johnson said he had no plans to stand down as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and would seek “full co-operation” with the inquiry”
Johnson will also return to his writing endeavours. He is currently finishing the manuscript for his biography of William Shakespeare, titled “Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius” that was originally scheduled for publication in 2016 before the Brexit referendum.
After the book is finished, he is expected to focus on memoirs from his stint in Number 10. “Like all prime ministers, he is thinking about what he wants to write about his time in office,” one friend said.