Sunak, Johnson hold talks amid battle for Conservative leadership

Meeting comes as support for Rishi Sunak surges and some Conservative Party legislators warn against Boris Johnson’s return to Downing Street.

Johnson waving at a camera as he walks past a car in an open suit jacket and white shirt.
Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks, at Gatwick Airport, near London, United Kingdom, on October 22, 2022. [Henry Nicholls/ Reuters]

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak – two of the likely contenders in the race to become the United Kingdom’s next prime minister – have held face-to-face talks, according to media reports.

The meeting took place late on Saturday, the BBC and the Sunday Times reported, shortly after Johnson returned to London from a Caribbean holiday, reportedly aiming to launch an attempt to win a second term as prime minister, only weeks after he was forced to step down.

Neither of the men has yet declared if he will run to replace outgoing leader Liz Truss, who announced on Thursday she would stand down – just 44 days into her tenure. The potential candidates have until 13:00 GMT on Monday to secure the backing of at least 100 Conservative Party legislators and enter the leadership race.

Few details have emerged about what The Sun dubbed a “secret summit” and the Sunday Times said was still ongoing at close to 10pm (21:00 GMT). The Sunday Telegraph reported they were set to discuss “agreeing to a joint ticket” to avoid a Conservative Party “civil war”.

Susie Boniface, author and columnist at the Daily Mirror, said a joint leadership bid by Sunak and Johnson was unlikely. “We need to remember these two men actually detest each other. They do not get on, they don’t see eye to eye,” she told Al Jazeera.

It is thought to be their first in-person discussions in months, following a spectacular falling-out after Sunak’s resignation as finance minister in July helped trigger the government mutiny that ultimately prompted Johnson’s ousting.

Sunak is currently ahead in the race, with the public backing of 128 legislators, compared with Johnson’s 53. Former defence minister Penny Mordaunt, who is the only Conservative Party member to formally declare her run, has about 23 nominations.

The leadership contest has been accelerated to take only a week. Under the rules, only three candidates will be able to reach the first ballot on Monday afternoon, with the final two put to a vote on Friday, which is limited to about 170,000 signed-up members of the Conservative Party.

‘We must move on’

Johnson’s allies say he is “up for it” but the prospect of another premiership for the 58-year-old architect of Brexit is a polarising issue for many in the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided after seeing off four prime ministers in six years.

Johnson had left Downing Street shrouded in scandal following a government revolt over a slew of crises. He is currently under investigation by parliament’s Privileges Committee to establish whether he lied to the House of Commons over lockdown-breaking parties. Ministers found to have knowingly misled parliament are expected to resign.

“It is simply not right to risk repeating the chaos [and] confusion of the last year,” said David Frost, a formerly loyal minister appointed to the House of Lords by Johnson.

“We must move on”, he urged legislators, adding they “must get behind a capable leader who can deliver a Conservative programme”, who he identified as ex-finance minister Sunak.

Dominic Raab – Johnson’s deputy prime minister – echoed the comments, telling Sky News the imminent parliamentary inquiry into the “Partygate” scandal could prove too distracting.

“The job of any cabinet member, let alone the prime minister, is just relentlessly and consistently concentrating with a laser-like focus on the British people – from the economy through to the NHS, schools, crime, immigration,” Raab said. “It’s difficult to see how you could do that, if at the same time you’re giving evidence, giving testimony, We’ll be caught back in the groundhog day the political soap opera of Partygate.”

Veteran backbencher Roger Gale has also warned that Johnson could face a wave of resignations from legislators refusing to serve under him again.

Meanwhile, in a crucial coup for Sunak, trade minister Kemi Badenoch, an influential Conservative Party member, said in a Sunday Times article that “he would be a great leader during a time of crisis”.

Johnson has nonetheless been endorsed by several Conservative Party heavyweights, including ex-interior minister Priti Patel on Saturday.

Meanwhile, posting a photo of Johnson on the phone to his Facebook, backbench Conservative member of parliament Lee Anderson revealed he was backing him after “a long chat about everything past and present”.

“My inbox is full of BBB,” he said, referring to the acronym and hashtag “Bring Back Boris” that is used by his supporters.

Although Johnson remains popular with party members who could decide the contest, polling shows he is broadly disliked by the electorate, with a YouGov survey finding that 52 percent opposed his comeback. Another poll also found three in five voters now want an early general election, in line with demands from opposition parties, as Britons struggle with a worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Most Britons do not want a Johnson comeback, Boniface of the Daily Mirror said.

“There’s lots of talk about whether it should be Boris, but most people in this country don’t want Boris Johnson to be prime minister. Most people in this country according to the surveys, and the polls, want there to be a change of government. They want a general election. They’ve had enough.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies