UK Politics: Could 2023 see another Tory leadership crisis and Boris Johnson return?

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson hasn't abandoned his political ambitions

As the Tories continue to flounder under Rishi Sunak, Paul Krishnamurty analyses the betting on his and the party's future.

  • Polls remain dire Tories

  • Grassroots revolt could destabilise Sunak

  • Boris Johnson waiting in the wings

This time last year, the big political betting story was whether Boris Johnson could survive 'Partygate'. Having long predicted he would leave office before 2024, that proved a very successful market but I couldn't have imagined the Tories would change leaders twice during 2022.

Polls point to a Tory wipeout

Given the party's dire standing in the polls and looming catastrophe at the next election, it is certainly fair to ask whether we will see another during 2023. As this recent MRP illustrates, virtually no Tory MP is safe. The events of 2022 cemented their reputation for ruthlessness towards leaders deemed to be losers.

Rishi Sunak is currently rated 20% likely to leave office during 2023 at odds of 5.04/1. Those odds partly account for the possibility of a general election being held. 2024 is clear favourite at 2.35/4 (43%).

Kent chaos indicates grassroots anger

Another factor to consider is that the party is now fundamentally divided and perhaps impossible to manage.

Take this news from Hythe in Kent. A Tory councillor has been forced to stand down after his links to fascists were exposed and, according to the Express, the party are struggling to find a replacement candidate in what would normally be a safe Tory seat.

The argument put forward in this piece is that nobody wants to represent the party in its current form. That Sunak and Jeremy Hunt lack legitimacy among the grassroots. Tax rises in the latest budget are deeply unpopular and fear of revolt explains precisely why Sunak has u-turned on issues such as onshore wind and housebuilding targets.

Cruddas campaign could gain momentum

It echoes the challenge to the leadership from mega-donor Lord Cruddas. Having led a failed campaign to reinstate Johnson over the summer, Cruddas has formed the Conservative Democratic Organisation. He aims to secure greater power for the grassroots over the selection of MPs, and restate their power to choose the party leader. Priti Patel is supportive and I've noted increased activity online around this cause.

This is an especially sore point, because Tory members rejected Sunak in favour of Liz Truss. When she was ousted, MPs installed Sunak without reference to the membership and, critically, failed to give Johnson enough backing to return. The general consensus was that Johnson would have won such a contest among the members.

Reform present new right-wing threat

There is also a growing threat from the Right in the form of the latest Nigel Farage/Richard Tice vehicle, Reform UK. Given they no longer have the totemic issue of Brexit to hoover up discontented Tory voters, their polling around 6-8% should alarm the Tory leadership. No way they can turn around vast polling deficits to Labour without these voters.

Reform's support is coming mostly at Tory expense. They are nowhere near the level one would need to challenge in a specific constituency, and failed miserably in two recent low turnout by-elections - precisely the scenario in which a rising small party might expect to break through. However when you consider it took Farage's UKIP a decade or so to poll at this level, their ascent has been rapid.

As ever, Farage's weapon is immigration, predictably seeking to capitalise on migrant boats arriving at our shores and the vast rise in legal migration numbers. He talks of destroying the Tory party and, at the very least, is seeking to exert pressure on Sunak's government to dance to his tune. A playbook he already mastered with Brexit.

Sunak remains beholden to ERG

This line of attack may lack electoral appeal among swing voters, and more likely harms the Tory brand. However this explains why far-right rhetoric from the likes of Home Secretary Suella Braverman is tolerated by the leadership.

He is beholden to her ERG faction, whose support for him in October killed off Johnson's comeback hopes. It is why the government dare not talk publicly about new Swiss-style Brexit deals or returning to the Single Market.

This version of the Tories risks being squeezed on both flanks. Despite Hunt's budget striking a relatively centrist tone, the Tories aren't as yet regaining ground lost to Labour when the Johnson, and then Truss, regimes imploded.

On today's big issue - strikes - Sunak finds himself on the wrong side of median opinion. At a time when some expected a long honeymoon, he ends 2022 with this particularly devastating poll news.

Johnson still popular among the Right

Johnson lost those median voters in spectacular fashion and left office a toxic figure. However he still struck a chord with right wing activists. One under-discussed achievement is that, under his leadership, the Tories virtually wiped out far-right parties such as UKIP, BNP and English Democrats.

Like Donald Trump, Johnson shows no sign of abandoning his political ambitions. That improbable return from the beach to bid for the leadership shows how much he still wants the top job. I wouldn't be in any doubt that he will try again, and would jump at the chance to usurp Sunak - whom he and his supporters blame for his downfall.

Could it happen before the next election? Nadine Dorries has a book about the 'political assassination' of her friend and ally due out in the autumn. I reckon there is at least some half-formed plan afoot to destabilise Sunak.

Beforehand, though, Johnson must survive the Privileges Committee investigation into whether he lied to Parliament over Partygate. An open and shut case, which may finally end his hopes.

Nevertheless, as odds of (11.0) to be leader at the next election illustrate, a comeback can't be ruled out. If he's still in Parliament and Sunak doesn't turn the party's grim polls around, there are sure to be plenty of desperate MPs willing to gamble that Johnson's electoral touch has not deserted him.

More bad news for Sunak on horizon

2023 does look set to produce a series of disasters for Sunak. There are several potential by-elections on the cards from unresolved scandals, and perhaps more as Tory MPs jump before being pushed at the next election. The local elections in May will probably result in humiliating defeat.

Would I back 5.04/1 for Sunak to go this year? No, because I don't expect an election. I'd prefer to lay Keir Starmer for next Prime Minister at 1.454/9 - a bet that has already paid out twice during this Parliament.

This could also land in the unlikely event that some unforeseen disaster ruins the Labour leader, or were the Tories to somehow turn their fortunes around. Certainly, short odds-on about Starmer does not appeal as a back, this far out from the next election.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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UK - Party Leaders: UK - Party Leaders (Year Rishi Sunak replaced as Conservative Leader)

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