According to media reports, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak – two of the likely contenders in the race to become the UK’s next prime minister – have held face-to-face talks.
The meeting took place late Saturday, the BBC and the Sunday Times reported, shortly after Johnson returned to London earlier in the day from a Caribbean vacation with the aim of making a daring bid to win a second term as prime minister, only a few weeks after being forced to resign.
Neither man has yet stated that they will go on to replace outgoing leader Liz Truss, who announced on Thursday that she would step down — just 44 dashing days into her tenure. The potential candidates have until Monday 13:00 GMT to secure the support of at least 100 Conservative Party lawmakers and take part in the leadership race.
Few details have emerged about what The Sun called a “secret summit” and the Sunday Times said it was underway at around 10pm (21:00 GMT). The Sunday Telegraph reported that they planned to discuss “agree to a joint ticket” to avoid a Tory “civil war”.
It is believed to be their first face-to-face talks in months, following a spectacular row after Sunak stepped down as finance minister in July that sparked the government mutiny that eventually led to Johnson’s ouster.
Sunak is currently leading the race with the public backing of 128 lawmakers, compared to Johnson’s 53. Former Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt, the only Conservative Party member to formally announce her participation, has about 23 nominations.
The leadership contest has been accelerated and will last only one week. Under the rules, only three candidates will be able to reach the first ballot of lawmakers on Monday afternoon, while the last two will be voted on Friday, which is limited to about 170,000 signed Conservative Party members.
‘We have to move on’
Johnson had cut a luxury stay in the Dominican Republic to join the fray, with allies saying he was ready. But the prospect of another premiership for the 58-year-old architect of Brexit is a polarizing issue for many in the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided after the resignation of four prime ministers in six years.
Johnson had left Downing Street shrouded in scandal following a government uprising over a slew of scandals. He is currently under investigation by Parliament’s Privileges Committee to determine whether he lied to the House of Commons about parties breaking the lockdown. Ministers who deliberately misled parliament are expected to resign.
“It’s just not right to risk repeating the chaos” [and] confusion over the past year,” said David Frost, a formerly loyal minister appointed by Johnson in the House of Lords.
“We need to move on,” he urged lawmakers, adding they “must stand behind a capable leader who can deliver a conservative program,” whom he identified as ex-Finance Minister Sunak.
Dominic Raab, Johnson’s deputy prime minister, echoed the comments, telling Sky News that the pending parliamentary inquiry into the ‘Partygate’ scandal could be too distracting.
“The job of any cabinet minister, let alone the prime minister, is simply to focus relentlessly and consistently with a laser-like focus on the British people – from the economy to the NHS, schools, crime, immigration,” Raab said. “It’s hard to see how you could do that, if you testify at the same time, testify, we get caught in the groundhog day, Partygate’s political soap opera.”
Veteran backbencher Roger Gale has also warned that Johnson could face a wave of layoffs from lawmakers who refuse to serve under him again.
Meanwhile, in a major coup for Sunak, Commerce Secretary Kemi Badenoch, an influential member of the Conservative Party, said in a Sunday Times article that “he would be a great leader in times of crisis”.
Johnson has nevertheless been supported by several Conservative Party heavyweights, including ex-Home Secretary Priti Patel on Saturday.
Meanwhile, posting a photo of Johnson on the phone to his Facebook, backbench Conservative MP Lee Anderson revealed he supported him after “a long conversation about everything past and present”.
“My inbox is full of BBB,” he said, referring to the acronym and hashtag “Bring Back Boris” used by his supporters.
While Johnson remains popular with party members who could rule the game, polls show he generally dislikes the electorate, with a YouGov poll showing 52 percent opposed his comeback. Another poll also found that three in five voters now want an early general election, in line with opposition party demands, as Britons grapple with a worsening cost of living crisis.
Susie Bonieface, an author and columnist at the Daily Mirror, said a joint leadership bid from Sunak and Johnson was unlikely. “We have to remember that these two men really hate each other. They don’t get along, they don’t even see,” she told Al Jazeera.
Most Britons don’t want Johnson’s comeback, she added.
“There’s a lot 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 polls and polls, want a change of government. They want general elections. They have had enough.”