Boris Johnson could be eyeing an unlikely comeback, months after Rishi Sunak helped knock out his scandal-hit premiership

London (AFP) - Britain’s divisive former leader Boris Johnson on Friday received heavyweight Conservative backing to stage a sensational comeback following the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Cabinet member Penny Mordaunt became the first to formally declare her candidacy, after the UK’s ruling party was forced into its second leadership contest in weeks.

Mordaunt, who just missed out on making the final runoff after Johnson quit, said she was running for “a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest”.

Truss announced Thursday she was quitting after just 44 tempestuous days in office.

YouGov found that three in five voters now want an early general election, in line with the angry clamour coming from opposition parties as Britons struggle with a worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt, seen here with Liz Truss last week, was first to enter the Tory leadership race

Labour and other parties argue only an election can end the months of political chaos, sparked when Johnson was himself forced out in July after non-stop personal and political scandal.

In the resultant contest, Truss won the support of just over 80,000 Tory party members, defeating Rishi Sunak, who correctly warned that her hard-right programme of debt-fuelled tax cuts would crash the economy.

- Serious times -

Now with a new vacancy suddenly opening up in 10 Downing Street, the former finance minister has emerged as favourite in media straw polls of Conservative MPs.

But Johnson was reportedly cutting short a Caribbean holiday to take part in the accelerated contest, which will see Tory MPs hold a vote on Monday before a possible online ballot for the members next week.

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Johnson loyalist, became the first minister to publicly back him, tweeting: “Only Boris can win the next election.”

Cabinet colleague Simon Clarke also endorsed Johnson, who led the Tories to election triumph over Labour in 2019.

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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a favourite of the Tory grassroots, told reporters he was not standing himself and said: “At the moment, I’m leaning towards Boris Johnson.”

But Wallace added that Johnson still had “some questions to answer” over the multiple scandals, which resulted in a yet-to-launch investigation in the House of Commons.

If found guilty of lying to the Commons over the “Partygate” scandal – lockdown-breaching revels held in Downing Street – Johnson could be suspended or even expelled from parliament.

The investigating committee is sitting on “damning new evidence” that would doom any new Johnson premiership, ITV News reported.

Thanks to such controversies, Johnson left Number 10 with dismal poll ratings, and other Tories were aghast at the prospect of his comeback.

Veteran backbencher Roger Gale warned that Johnson could face a wave of resignations from MPs refusing to serve under him as leader.

Jesse Norman, a minister in the Foreign Office, said choosing Johnson again would be “an absolutely catastrophic decision”.

Sunak got his own endorsements from among others Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab, both senior former cabinet members.

And Johnson’s ambiguous appeal was underlined by another YouGov poll that found 52 percent of voters opposed to his return.

- Failed ‘experiment’ -

Rishi Sunak quickly emerged as the favourite to succeed Truss

While Sunak and Johnson are yet to formally declare, the contest is widely expected to be a three-way race between them and Mordaunt, who is the cabinet minister in charge of the House of Commons.

Contenders have until 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday to produce a minimum 100 nominations from their fellow Tory MPs.

That means a maximum of three candidates will emerge from among the 357 Conservatives in the Commons.

If necessary, they will vote to leave two candidates standing, and hold another “indicative” vote to tell the party membership their preferred option.

If no single candidate emerges, the rank-and-file will then have their say in an online ballot and the result will be announced next Friday.

Political website Guido Fawkes, which is running a rolling spreadsheet of Tory MPs’ declared support, had Sunak on 86, Johnson on 63 and Mordaunt on 23 by Friday evening.

But Labour leader Keir Starmer said Britain “cannot have another experiment” after Truss’s disastrous tenure.