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Britain’s Sunak qualifies for PM race as Johnson returns to London

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Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to Britain from a holiday on Saturday to launch a bold political comeback, as Tory leadership rival Rishi Sunak hit the minimum threshold to contest Britain’s top job.

Johnson cut short a trip to the Caribbean to join the race to replace outgoing leader Liz Truss, with allies telling British media he was “ready for it”.

The 58-year-old controversial Brexit architect only handed over power at the start of September, two months after announcing his resignation following a Tory uprising over a series of scandals.

His apparent bid to return to office weeks later has already been decried by opposition politicians, and even some members of his own fractured ruling party who argue he and the country need stability and unity.

“We need to move forward, not back,” Dominic Raab – Johnson’s deputy prime minister – told Sky News, adding that an imminent parliamentary inquiry into the “Partygate” scandal that plagued his former boss might prove too troublesome.

Raab said former finance minister Sunak’s economic background meant he was the “standout candidate”.

The Tories have been forced into a second, this time accelerated, leadership race since the summer after Truss dramatically announced on Thursday that she would step down – just 44 tumultuous days into her term.

This followed a disastrous mini-budget tax cut that sparked economic and political turmoil that had been predicted by Sunak.

‘New start’

Late Friday, Sunak’s allies in parliament said he had garnered nominations from 100 Tory MPs, the party’s threshold for running.

However, Sunak and Johnson have yet to announce their candidacy, leaving it to allies to signal their intention.

Cabinet member Penny Mordaunt, who narrowly missed the second round after Johnson left, became the first to officially declare her candidacy again on Friday.

The 49-year-old said she was running for “a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest”. But she is already trailing her rivals by dozens of nominations.

The fast-track contest will see the 357 Tory MPs hold a vote on Monday on all the candidates with the 100 nominations, before a possible online ballot of party members later in the week if there are two remaining.

The Sunak and Johnson camps are reportedly seeking talks to see if there is room for a unity deal – although there has been a lot of bad blood since the former prime minister was defenestrated.

Sunak’s resignation in July as Chancellor of the Exchequer helped spark the government mutiny that ultimately led to Johnson’s ousting.

James Duddridge, one of Johnson’s closest allies in Parliament, said on Friday night he had been in touch with his former boss via WhatsApp.

“He said…” We’re going to do it. I’m in,'” the MP told Sky News, as the broadcaster posted a photo apparently showing Johnson on a flight home from the Dominican Republic.

“Wielded the Knife”

The ever-exuberant former leader has won the backing of several cabinet heavyweights, including Defense Secretary Ben Wallace – a favorite among the Conservative base – who is “leaning in to” support Johnson.

But Wallace noted he still had “a few questions to answer” about the myriad controversies that have engulfed his government, culminating in the inquiry which has yet to be launched in the House of Commons.

If found guilty of lying to the House of Commons about ‘Partygate’ – lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street – Johnson could be suspended or even expelled from Parliament.

Following such controversies, Johnson left number 10 with dismal polls, and other conservatives seem dismayed at the prospect of his return.

Veteran backbencher Roger Gale has warned that Johnson could face a wave of resignations from MPs refusing to serve under him as leader.

Although he remains popular with members who could decide the contest, polls show he remains widely hated by the electorate, with a YouGov poll revealing 52% of voters opposed his return.

Another poll also found that three in five voters now want an early general election, in line with demands from opposition parties, as Britons grapple with a deepening cost of living crisis.

In the constituency of Sunak in Yorkshire, northern England, Elaine Stones, a 58-year-old farmer, said the party made a mistake electing Truss in her place last month.

“He is honest, reliable and he should have been elected last time,” she told AFP.

But in a sign of party-wide divisions, retired Maureen Ward called him a “backstabber” who helped unseat Johnson.

“He pulled the knife out and once you did that you can’t be trusted,” she said.