Matthew Parris reports that Boris Johnson is thinking of scuttling at the next general election from Uxbridge, majority 7,210, to Derbyshire Dales, majority 17,381.

Parris promises that if this happens, “I shall be pleased to add to the general merriment by putting up against the charlatan myself, if that would help foil his cunning plan”.

Earlier in the week, also in The Times, Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, reported that the campaign for Johnson’s return this year to No 10 “has already begun”, and predicted it will “boil over” after the local elections in May, especially if the results are as dire for Rishi Sunak as opinion polls now suggest.

But he concluded that while Johnson’s time may “come again one day”, at present “it’s time to move on”.

For as any Jacobite will tell you, it is easier to drink to a restoration than to bring one about. The nearest Bonnie Prince Charlie got to London in 1745 was Derby.

And if one scans more recent political history, one finds a marked shortage of figures who having served as Prime Minister, returned for a second spell in No 10 despite having in the interval relinquished the party leadership.

William Gladstone is the most recent example, but no one actually took over from him as Liberal Leader when the party was in opposition in the latter half of the 1870s.

Nor can one regard William Pitt, who stood down in 1801 and came back in 1804, as a very useful comparison, though one may note that Henry Addington, who served between those two dates, was until Sunak the only Wykehamist PM.

Pitt served a total of almost 19 years as PM, and Gladstone just over 12 years. Johnson was thrown out by his own MPs after three years.

In the confidence vote held by the 1922 Committee on 6th June 2022, 211 Conservative MPs supported Johnson and 148 voted against him.

His position was by then extraordinarily precarious, and a month later became untenable when the Chris Pincher affair precipitated an avalanche of resignations from the Government, including those of Sajid Javid as Health Secretary and Sunak as Chancellor.

Whoever is leader of the Conservative Party has to avoid “the unforgiveable sin” (Arthur Balfour’s words) of splitting it.

If he or she cannot keep the party together, then however admirable in other ways he or she may be, out he or she goes.

Commentators prefer, for most of the time, to discuss other aspects of politics, sometimes presented in moral terms as a struggle between high-minded and low-minded policies; between good and evil.

But unity is an indispensable requirement. Our political parties were created in order to contend for control of the House of Commons, a contest in which divided parties find themselves at a fatal disadvantage.

The Conservatives did split, most bitterly, over repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, after which it took them another 28 years to win a parliamentary majority.

They learned their lesson and have not split since, whereas the Liberals and Labour have at various points suffered disastrous splits.

It is hard, bearing in mind this need for unity, to see how Johnson can become leader once more in this Parliament, in which so many of his fellow Conservatives refused only last summer to continue to serve under him.

Nor has he generally been inclined to press his cause in circumstances where bitter infighting can be expected to follow: witness the way he stood down both in June 2016, on being attacked by Michael Gove, and in October 2022, when the party rallied round Sunak after the short, unhappy prime ministership of Liz Truss.

On both occasions, Johnson still had a considerable number of followers, some of whom thought victory was within his grasp and felt badly let down when he threw in the towel.

And he has many admirers now, who consider him to be head and shoulders above his rivals, an orator who can say what needs to be said about such great issues of the day as Ukraine, a campaigner with a remarkable ability to reach and enthuse the wider public, a leader with the courage and resourcefulness to wangle his way through intractable difficulties, a man of generosity and humour who has not had the life crushed out of him by politics.

In my recent life of him, I contend that he is a Tory Democrat who takes his place in a patriotic tradition which can be traced from Disraeli via the Churchills to the present day, an alliance between a section of the ruling class and the working class to improve the lives of the poor and tease the middle-class prigs.

But Tory Democrats have a self-sabotaging tendency to go too far. Johnson’s insouciant and flippant disregard for accuracy – to his critics his barefaced lying – has landed him in front of the Privileges Committee, which will decide whether he misled the Commons by declaring that no rules were broken during partygate.

Sunak has indicated at frequent intervals that he regards questions of propriety with greater seriousness than Johnson did.

The new Prime Minister also takes an altogether more conscientious attitude to the public finances. The Conservative Party has sought, as it so often does, to provide the nation with a different PM, without putting the voters to the trouble of electing a different party.

But Johnson remains in the Commons, a grand imponderable, capable of a spontaneity which his opponents find improper, but which sometimes catches the public’s imagination.

When the nation wearies of Sunak’s elegant self-restraint, this Tory Democrat may yet get another chance to persuade even those Conservatives who so recently found him intolerable that he alone can save them from Sir Keir Starmer.

Andrew Gimson is the author of Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10.

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