March 13, 2024 - 4:30pm

Boris is back. Sort of. The Times reports that the former prime minister will campaign for the Conservatives ahead of the next election, placing a particular emphasis on red wall seats. Alongside visiting marginal constituencies, Johnson will apparently make speeches and appear on campaign material.

Given the former Uxbridge MP was unceremoniously dumped by his own party, one might query his electoral appeal. After all, when Johnson left office in September 2022 almost 70% of voters thought he was performing badly. According to most polls, he is considered the second worst prime minister since 2010 — trumped only by the inimitable Liz Truss.

While Johnson arouses strong support among many of his 2019 voters, and while he remains more popular than Rishi Sunak, his rumoured enlistment speaks volumes about the Conservative operation. After all, the next general election will be a plebiscite on the last 14 years, during which time he served not only as prime minister, but also foreign secretary and Brexit hellraiser-in-chief. In a change election, Johnson can only speak with authenticity about the past — and accomplishments nobody really believes in.

Take migration. As his colleagues try to spike Labour on the last issue where they remain competitive, Keir Starmer can point to Johnson as the most liberal prime minister on migration in British history. In 2019, when Johnson won the Tory leadership, net migration was below 350,000, where it had consistently been for decades. By December 2021, however, that figure had risen above 450,000. A year later, shortly after Johnson exited Number 10, it had surged higher still to 745,000 people.

The fact is that the Conservative Party oversaw an influx of migrants unprecedented in postwar history. It’s a singular lesson on a cardinal rule in politics, and life: judge people by what they do, not what they say.

That Johnson will campaign alongside not only Sunak, but David Cameron too, underscores how his party is suffering from an identity crisis. The beauty of Johnson in 2019 was that the contradictions could be bridged, however briefly. Net Zero sympathisers and petrolheads could both back him. Civil libertarians and reactionary authoritarians each believed he was secretly one of their own. Big-state dirigistes and market Thatcherites could point to evidence that the PM was a true believer. All the binaries which plagued the Conservatives over previous decades, which ultimately did for both of Johnson’s predecessors, seemed to briefly evaporate.

But putting Johnson alongside Cameron offers the precise opposite. Rather than a maverick, the former would suddenly appear to be a company man. For it to work the freewheeling would have to go — and with Johnson the freewheeling is the point.

It has been suggested that Johnson could try a comeback, perhaps even before the next general election. After all, if Donald Trump can return to win the Republican nomination — and likely the White House if polls are to be believed — why are the chances of a Johnsonian resurrection so remote?

Finding a safe seat before the election remains technically plausible. All it would require is a sympathetic incumbent, or parliamentary candidate, to stand aside and for the local association to be amenable. Yet one of Johnson’s primary misgivings about high office was that it brought in too little cash. In a year when he plans to finish his political memoirs, present shows on GB News, and continue writing columns for the Daily Mail, it would be strange for him to suddenly rejoin the Westminster rat race.

The biggest barrier to Johnson returning to politics, however, is that he feels like a man out of time. Tory voters’ top priority is migration, an issue on which he has a record of extraordinary liberality. When the economy was at least stuttering along, a persona defined by media spectacle could thrive. But now even that isn’t true, with Britain’s GDP per capita falling for the best part of two years.

We occupy a fundamentally different moment even to a few years ago: where Johnson talked of largesse and levelling up, Jeremy Hunt will have to find as much as £20 billion worth of cuts. The costs of servicing British debt are now much higher than they were in 2022, interest rates are squeezing even affluent households, and disparate demands on the Exchequer — from councils to a growing university debt crisis — can’t be ignored. Beyond all that is the prospect of an ageing population, an increasingly unstable world — and with it the need for re-modelled alliances — and the fact that Britain hasn’t had a growth model for 16 years.

The Democratic strategist Paul Begala once joked that politics is show business for ugly people. But when a nation faces challenges such as these, things become more serious. There’s a reason the most boring man in the history of British politics stands on the cusp of a landslide. Boris Johnson is anything but boring — but he’s also not very serious.

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.