Boris Johnson won’t save the Conservatives from Reform

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Boris Johnson has been drafted in by the Conservatives to help counter the growing threat from Reform UK, according to reports today.

The former prime minister, who was eventually expelled from Downing Street in 2022 after a mass exodus of ministers, is said to have signed tens of thousands of letters due to be delivered to voters this week.

The Telegraph reports that among those voters believed to have been targeted are wavering Conservatives who backed the party when Boris Johnson was leader but are now drawn to Reform.

So far in the election campaign, Johnson has already recorded videos for a number of his Conservative allies — i.e. those MPs who remained loyal to him until the last. In a series of social media clips (in which Johnson displays varying levels of kemptness), the ex-PM has urged voters to re-elect the likes of Sir Simon Clarke, Paul Bristow, Nick Fletcher, Tom Hunt and Jane Stevenson.

These endorsements amount to subtle freelancing on the part of these Conservative candidates — who are, notably, far from devoted Sunak acolytes. Clarke, for instance, who served as chief secretary to the Treasury under Johnson, called for Rishi Sunak to resign earlier this year.

Back in January, Clarke wrote in a scathing op-ed: “The unvarnished truth is that Rishi Sunak is leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred.” (It’s a judgement that has aged pretty well, in fairness).

In a video message posted to Clarke’s X/Twitter feed last week, Johnson said he was “passionate” that voters should re-elect his old ally, describing him as a “crucial part of the whole levelling up agenda”.

Clarke welcomed the endorsement, saying: “I’m delighted to have the support of Boris Johnson — the man who saw off Keir Starmer’s attempt to overturn Brexit and to install Jeremy Corbyn as our prime minister — twice.”

In the end, that Tory candidates are turning to Johnson for endorsements speaks both to the political grip the ex-PM retains on the Conservative Party and his perceived strong standing among the electorate. Apart from Clarke (2017), all the candidates listed above were elected at the 2019 election. The endorsements also come amid reports that candidates up and down the country feel unsupported by CCHQ; and so, it seems, Tories turn to Johnson.

But that CCHQ itself is drafting in Boris Johnson in an attempt to boost the party’s faltering national campaign is rather more revealing.

It’s part of a bid, initial reports suggest, to stem the flow of Conservative support to Nigel Farage’s Reform party. The thinking is this: the vast bulk of traditional Tory voters backed Boris Johnson in 2019, but many have since been wooed by Farage. The ex-PM, ergo, is the man to win them back.

It is worth stressing that relations between Johnson and Sunak have been strained since the latter resigned as chancellor in July 2022, throwing the former’s administration into turmoil. As such, Johnson’s involvement in the election campaign has so far been limited to candidate endorsements — with tensions remaining between the former colleagues.

But now, it seems, the “big dog” has been beckoned back to save Sunak.

The reports of Johnson’s return also came as the Conservatives issued their starkest warning yet over Reform, in reaction to the party’s manifesto launchyesterday. “If you’re thinking about voting for Reform, and a generation under Labour scares you, there’s only one way to prevent it: vote Conservative”, a spokesperson said.

There are, however, reasons to doubt Boris Johnson’s ability to save the Conservative Party from a Reform onslaught this election. Indeed, contrary to popular Tory belief, Johnson has never faced a full-strength Nigel Farage in a national campaign. Rather, back in 2019, the then-Brexit Party leader stood down candidates in 317 seats the Conservatives won at the 2017 election; it came after a period of negotiations between Farage and Johnson.

It means, all else being equal, voters who backed Boris over Farage are not now swinging behind Reform en masse. Rather, for many traditional Tory voters, this will be their first time picking between Brexit/Reform and the Conservative Party in a general election. I have already written about this dynamic here.

That said, in a potential signal that Johnson’s involvement in the remaining weeks of the campaign will be limited, the ex-PM’s wife, Carrie, posted pictures on her Instagram last night of the family on holiday in “beautiful Sardinia”. That’s some distance away from the campaign trail.

Still, Johnson’s limited comeback has already caught Keir Starmer’s eye. Speaking to LBC this morning, Starmer joked that Johnson’s reported return amounted to a “third or fourth relaunch” of the Conservative election plan.

“For Heaven’s sake!”, he added.

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‘It’s great that Boris is supporting the Conservative Party. I very much welcome that. … I know that will make a difference’

—  On the campaign trail today, Rishi Sunak confirms Boris Johnson has been drafted in by the Conservatives to help in the election.

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