LONDON — Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who was forced out of office by ethics scandals just three months ago — was vying Friday to return to the post to replace Liz Truss, whose swift fall plunged the country into bewilderment at a time of great economic challenges.
The Conservative Party has ordered a lightning-fast contest that is expected to wrap up nominations on Monday and install a new prime minister, the third this year, within a week.
Johnson has not publicly stated that he wants to run, but a political ally who spoke to him told Sky News that he is “open” and bookies consider him one of the favorites to win the race.
If Johnson does return, it would represent a stunning comeback for a polarizing figure who was forced out of office by a spate of ethics scandals. Opponents say giving it another chance will only lead to more controversy and disappointment.
The uncertainty in the leadership of the country comes at a time of weak economic growth in which millions of people are struggling due to an increase in the cost of loans and in the prices of food, fuel and other basic items. A growing wave of strikes by rail and postal workers, lawyers and others has highlighted growing discontent with the economy, which faces a threat of recession.
Truss resigned on Thursday after 45 turbulent days, acknowledging that she could not implement her economic package based on tax cuts, which she was forced to abandon after it caused turmoil in financial markets.
House of Commons Speaker Penny Mordaunt was the first candidate to publicly announce that she would run to replace Truss. Mordaunt tweeted that she represents a “new beginning.”
Mordaunt, an outspoken 49-year-old Royal Army reservist who briefly served as defense secretary in 2019, is the bookmakers’ third favorite. Outside of conservative circles, she is perhaps best known for having participated in the reality television show “Splash!”, On Diving.
Leading the pack in support from lawmakers, though he has not run publicly, is former Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak, who previously came in second to Truss.
Sunak, 42, had repeatedly warned Conservatives that Truss’s tax cut plans would be disastrous, as they ultimately were. Supporters of Sunak, a former hedge fund manager, see him as having a steady hand in managing a troubled economy.
Popular Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who had been talked about as a possible contender, was ruled out on Friday.
The wild card is Johnson, who was forced out of office in July and still faces an inquiry into whether he lied to Parliament while still prime minister, which could lead to his suspension as lawmaker.
His allies in Parliament are working to drum up support for an “I support Boris” campaign. One of them, lawmaker James Duddridge, told Sky News that the former premier would be flying back from the Caribbean, where he is on vacation, to run for the job and that he was “willing.”
Johnson, 58, is still held in high esteem by some Conservatives, who see him as a vote-winner with an unusual everyman touch that led the party to a major electoral victory in 2019. He is more popular with among the party’s rank and file than among lawmakers, and he is despised by some for the chaos and scandals that marred his term.
“Having a winner is what the party needs to survive,” Johnson’s ally Nadine Dorries told Sky News.
Johnson managed to shake off flaws that would have brought many politicians down. He survived even after he was fined by police for attending a series of illegal parties in government buildings while Britain was under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, until he finally resigned after racking up many scandals.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard has implored the party not to return to the “psychodrama” of the Johnson era.
“He’s had his chance and it hasn’t worked out,” Howard said. Some Conservative lawmakers have even threatened to leave the party if Johnson becomes leader again.