Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his final speech outside 10 Downing Street on September 6
London (AFP) - British former prime minister Boris Johnson’s prospective return to Downing Street reads like a Shakespearean arc of redemption after a fall – but critics see elements of farce.
Johnson, 58, has long been struggling to write a biography of William Shakespeare, missing several deadlines after securing a lucrative publishing advance in 2015.
He may have been concentrating on the manuscript during his recent self-imposed leisure time, after announcing his imminent departure in July and quitting in September.
For much of the time since July, he has been on UK and foreign holidays – reportedly cutting short a trip to the Caribbean on Friday to try to reclaim the crown in the Conservative party’s latest leadership contest.
Following the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss, Johnson’s supporters have urged him to resume a tenure that was abruptly curtailed by a cabinet uprising.
They appear motivated in part by a burning desire to halt Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister who was initially promoted by their Caesarean hero Johnson, but they accuse of then back-stabbing, Brutus-like.
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, such as King Lear and Macbeth, see the error of their ways too late, providing a redemptive coda to their doomed stories.
Has Johnson learned anything from his own many missteps?
- ‘The Scream’ -
He still has a Sword of Damocles hanging over him, in the shape of a House of Commons investigation into whether he lied to MPs over the “Partygate” affair.
Ex-aide Dominic Cummings, now a vocal critic of Johnson, argues that his former boss discreetly backed Truss against Sunak out of Machiavellian self-interest.
He expected her tenure to be disastrous and short-lived, paving the way for his return, Cummings claims.
“It is extraordinary the state of British politics… this soap opera is in danger of tipping over into absolute farce,” ex-Johnson aide Will Walden told LBC radio on Friday.
Switching artforms, he likened the situation to the nightmarish scene evoked in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”.
Boris Johnson declared 'Hasta la vista' when he left Downing Street
Johnson remains a favourite of some Tory lawmakers and grassroots – who will elect their new leader next week if Conservative MPs cannot settle on a single candidate.
Supporters believe only he has the democratic mandate from the electorate needed to rule until, and then win, the next general election due by January 2025.
“If Liz Truss is no longer PM there can be no coronation of previously failed candidates,” declared ex-culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist who in her spare time writes romantic fiction.
Johnson has, in his brief time away, been portrayed in a Sky television drama about the Covid crisis, played in Shakespearean guise by Kenneth Branagh, replete with dream sequences inspired by Greek tragedy.
His life story has been adapted for the stage including at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe festival, when Johnson was depicted having failed to learn any of his lines for a school performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”.
- ‘Fantasy land’ -
As under the scheming Richard, others warn that the kingdom faces dangerous divisions if Johnson returns.
Several Tory lawmakers have said they would be unable to remain under a second Johnson government, potentially forcing an early general election if the party loses its governing majority.
“The problem for them was his personality, and that hasn’t changed since he left 45 days ago,” Open University politics professor Simon Usherwood told AFP.
Johnson’s return as leader would be “a major trauma to the party, possibly fatally so”, he cautioned.
“As we saw with Truss, a favourite of the party members isn’t the same as a favourite of voters in general or even a credible PM at all.”
But not everyone is convinced that Johnson can overcome the high bar he needs to run in the new Tory race – a minimum 100 nominations from Conservative lawmakers.
“I don’t think that MPs will want to go back and pick the same person they drummed out of Downing Street only a few months ago,” said Tim Bale, a historian of the Conservatives.
“It’s fantasy land to think that voters want him back. But then some Tory MPs do live in fantasy land,” he added.
“Johnson would just be the final joke that the Conservative party tried to play on the country, and the country wouldn’t be laughing.”