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Sunak ponders Johnson’s return to frontline politics

Mandrake hears the former prime minister has named his price; a life peerage

Boris Johnson acknowledges his supporters after speaking at the Conservative Party Spring Forum. Photo: PA

Rishi Sunak’s desperation means he has little alternative but to contemplate bringing Boris Johnson back into frontline politics, but what’s in it for the perpetually holidaying grifter himself? Mandrake can disclose that Johnson has named his price to Sunak – a life peerage.

“Even Boris gets that the Tories are beyond salvation now, but it bugs him that David Cameron – his rival since Eton – has managed to bag a seat in the Lords, and he recognises it has a value on the international speaking circuit and to businesses seeking directors,” a Downing Street insider tells me. 

“Carrie, needless to say, is egging him on as she yearns to be Lady Johnson, and, of course, it’s also probably a case of now or never for Boris, as Labour could soon be in power for a very long time and he’d have little chance of being nodded through for one during their period in office.”

Johnson, who ducked out of facing the voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip when he resigned as an MP in 2023, also has no wish to face the scrutiny and potential humiliation of another parliamentary campaign.

Mandrake understands that Sunak had first mooted the idea to Johnson when they spoke ahead of the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph last year, when he had said he would think it over. Suggesting that remembering the fallen was the last thing on Sunak’s mind that day, he had also apparently used the occasion to sound out Cameron as foreign secretary (after first asking William Hague).

Sunak, who dealt Johnson’s premiership a fatal blow when he resigned as his chancellor over his handling of the Chris Pincher sexual harassment scandal, startled a great many in Westminster when he disclosed he still speaks with Johnson and refused to rule out the possibility of bringing him back on his top team.

At No 10 it’s not so much a case of rearranging the deckchairs as moving the flagpoles that now seems to matter to Rishi Sunak.

Mandrake hears the PM has just sanctioned a planning application to Westminster Council to “relocate two existing flagpoles to roof level”. 

The request, which was submitted last month, is the third time in three years that it has been felt necessary to move the No 10 flags. Boris Johnson had as PM got permission to hoist a new, taller flag above No 10, after moving it earlier from the gutter to the ridge of the roof. Presumably the changes will mean Sunak can now fly three flags from his roof, assuming, of course, the work gets done before he gets kicked out.

Mandrake has already highlighted how differently the media tycoons Lord Rothermere (the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday owner) and Rupert Murdoch (the supposedly retired boss of the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times) see things playing out politically in this country. 

Rothermere, still heavily influenced by his editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, would still appear to believe the Tories could win the next election if Boris Johnson were only brought back. “Millions of patriotic pro-Brexit voters still hold Boris in high regard…  bring back Boris soon,” the Mail on Sunday pleaded, somewhat poignantly, over the weekend.

Murdoch, by contrast, understands that the game is up for the Tories, and, while he has still been holding meetings with Rishi Sunak – he met him personally five times in the 12 months up to September last year – he knows the only interesting question now is who will lead the Tories in opposition.

Murdoch clearly wants Nigel Farage for the job, although he has still to even join the Tory Party. The Sunday Times’ Decca Aitkenhead was therefore charged with conducting an embarrassingly obsequious interview with Farage that was illustrated with a flattering picture and a headline that talked of him as the next Tory leader. In a sure sign of proprietorial enthusiasm, Aitkenhead felt the need to say, inter alia, that she’d “always liked him [Farage] enormously,” spoke, too, of his “likeability”, and how she found him “warm-hearted and funny”. Pass the sick bag.

Late on a Friday night, after the first editions had gone to press, the latest list of party donors and sycophants to be deemed worthy of “honours” was sneaked out, without proper scrutiny, and included the 27-year-old Plaid Cymru nominee Carmen Smith, whom the taxpayer could well be keeping in ermine and £40,000-a-year in allowances for 70 years. 

It’s easy of course to put a curse on all of the House of Lords, but there are still some decent, selfless individuals who serve in it, not least Alf Dubs (Labour); Michael Cashman (Labour), Ken Clarke (Tory) and Meral Hussein-Ece (Lib Dem). Cashman told me wearily that in his 10 years as a member, he’d seen it become a very different place. “Politics has been toxified by Boris Johnson and Brexit, within and without,” he said.

During the debate on the humanitarian situation in Gaza – it’s hard to imagine an issue requiring greater solemnity – one peer actually had to be reprimanded for “heckling” as another peer endeavoured to talk. It’s the sort of yobbish behaviour that is now commonplace in the Commons but still shocking in the Lords. The offender? Step forward and hang your head in shame, Ian Austin. I need hardly add that the Labour turncoat, often admonished in the Commons for heckling, was put in the Lords by Johnson in his Dissolution Honours list. 

It’s all very well for Boris Johnson to attack Tucker Carlson for being a “fawning stooge” in his much-derided interview with Vladimir Putin, but it’s hard not to think of what a fawning stooge Johnson has been all his life to so many very rich and powerful men. 

Sir David Barclay, when he was the co-owner of the Daily Telegraph, for which Johnson was a £275,000-a-year columnist, used to tell me it got embarrassing sometimes. “If there was ever a man in a room with more money than me then I’d feel Boris’s eyes wandering,” he confided in me. “And I always used to think how telling it was that the love and devotion he felt for Lord Conrad Black was so swiftly transferred to me when the ownership of the Telegraph transferred from him to me.”

Johnson has needless to say praised Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and also, incidentally, Putin. In his first major contribution as a backbench MP since being ousted as prime minister, Johnson thanked the Russian leader for his “inspirational leadership” during the war with Ukraine, before saying he had meant to say Volodymyr Zelensky. Given that Johnson is supporting Donald Trump, who has said he would encourage Putin to attack any Nato member country he didn’t feel was paying its share, it’s hard to see why he bothered to correct himself.

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