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A Boris Johnson comeback? The race is on to be Britain's latest prime minister

The former leader, who resigned under pressure after a long series of scandals, has emerged as an unlikely candidate to replace Liz Truss. NBC News looks at the main contenders.

LONDON — After the chaos of Liz Truss’ historically short stint as prime minister, Britain faced a new problem Friday: Who’s next?

Boris Johnson, the former leader and populist Brexit cheerleader who resigned under intense pressure after a long series of scandals, has emerged as an unlikely candidate to stage a comeback.

Whoever next inhabits the prime minister’s official residence at No. 10 Downing St. will inherit a daunting list of crises in addition to the challenge of overcoming the country’s increasingly dysfunctional politics.

Spiraling inflation, raised interest rates, the threat of widespread strike action, the war in Ukraine and a crumbling National Health Service are just some of the issues Britain has to tackle — not to mention the immediate issue of restoring economic credibility after Truss' abandoned plans spooked global markets.

In a speeded-up process, the ruling Conservative Party will have a new leader in the next week and Britain’s parliamentary system means that person will become prime minister by default.

NBC News looks at the main contenders to replace Truss.

Boris Johnson

It's only been three months since Johnson said he would stand down as leader, but a significant and growing number of Conservatives want him back.

Candidates in the leadership contest — which has been shortened to get a quicker result, coming just six weeks after the last one ended — have to get nominations from 100 of the 357 Conservative lawmakers, meaning a maximum field of three. If there’s only one candidate, they are automatically crowned the winner.

Otherwise lawmakers will vote to narrow the field to two and then the 175,000 or so Conservative Party members across the U.K. will choose the winner in an online vote. 

Johnson has yet to declare he will stand in the race, but he heavily hinted that he had unfinished business when he resigned, telling Parliament: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

The mere prospect of Johnson 2.0 has dominated British news coverage, from newspapers to radio talk shows.

So far three Cabinet ministers — Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace — have thrown their support behind Johnson.

Lawmaker Marco Longhi appealed to Johnson to return home from his vacation in the Caribbean: “Come back boss. The country needs you,” he said on Twitter.

Image: Boris Johnson Delivers Farewell Remarks At No10
Johnson announced he was resigning just months ago, but could be in line for a whirlwind return.Leon Neal / Getty Images

Johnson remains popular with some lawmakers and activists across the country for spearheading the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union and then winning an 80-seat majority in the 2019 general election, including many areas where the left-leaning opposition Labour Party traditionally dominates.

With Labour now soaring in the polls and the Conservatives plummeting, Johnson’s allure rests in no small part on the idea that he is the only person who can restore the party’s fortunes.

But many remember why Johnson was forced out in the first place.

His departure was triggered by the resignation of two senior ministers and a broader internal revolt following a sexual assault allegation involving a senior lawmaker that capped months of scandals.

Johnson is still under parliamentary investigation for allegedly lying over "Partygate," in which he and his staff held rule-breaking parties at the height of Covid lockdown. He denies the charge, but if found guilty he could be suspended from Parliament or even lose his seat in the House of Commons.

At the height of this scandal — which outraged a public who had been legally forced to stay at home — Johnson’s personal approval rating fell to minus 42%.

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Some Conservative lawmakers have suggested they may even quit the party if Johnson wins.Isabel Infantes / AFP via Getty Images

One former Cabinet colleague was not looking forward to a potential Johnson return.

“I think it’s insane, quite frankly. He is in substantial part the man responsible for the present crisis,” Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, told NBC News.

“His manipulation of the Conservative Party, his dishonesty and boosterism were all designed to cloak the absence of any realistic policies. It’s a con trick,” said Grieve, who was kicked out of the party for opposing the government on a key Brexit vote.

Truss failed, Grieve said, because of “the fantasies that underpin the policy.” In this sense, he added, “Johnson is the father of Trussism.”

Johnson is famed for his election-winning powers, but his unpopularity with the voting public cancels this out, one analyst said.

“Even if you buy into the idea that he was responsible for winning in 2019 — an argument which is at best highly contestable — everything that happened since means none of that appeal is there any more. None,” said Rob Ford, an expert in British politics at the University of Manchester.

“His supporters seem to imagine that the public is just going to purge its memory of everything that happened three months ago, or a year ago — it’s not going to happen. You can’t unburn the toast, and he is burned toast.”

Ford added: “He is gone, he is done, he is an electoral disaster area.”

Johnson’s parliamentary office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rishi Sunak

The investment banker-turned politician served as finance minister under Johnson, building his own personal brand and popularity with a slick social media operation and popular measures to alleviate economic pressure during the pandemic.

Sunak is the favorite to win, according to both pundits and bookmakers. 

Frequently touted as the country’s first British Asian prime minister, Sunak was beaten to the Conservative leadership by Truss in September, after a campaign in which he repeatedly warned that her economic policies were both irresponsible and inflationary. 

His supporters are now pointing out just how right he was, framing him as the ideal candidate to bolster the country’s credibility and steady its teetering economy.

“I have seen Rishi’s seriousness of purpose, capabilities, and commitment to put the nation’s interests above his own,” wrote lawmaker John Glen on Twitter on Friday afternoon. 

Sunak commanded the support of more Conservative lawmakers than Truss, but lost out in the final members’ vote. He may be the candidate most likely to lead lawmaker’s nominations again, and thus perhaps best placed to avoid another internal rebellion.

But he is viewed as responsible for Johnson’s downfall by some allies of the former prime minister, who are unlikely to cheer a Sunak premiership.

His ambitions suffered a setback in April when it emerged that his wife was saving millions in tax through her nondomiciled status, meaning she is treated as foreign-based for tax reasons.

She soon rescinded this status, but the media coverage illuminated the couple’s vast wealth — always a talking point in a country obsessed with social class and status.

Image: Rishi Sunak Announces Measures To Ease The Rising Cost Of Living
Sunak has kept a low profile since losing to Truss six weeks ago.Leon Neal / Getty Images file

Penny Mordaunt

Far less known to the public is Penny Mordaunt, an experienced minister and member of Parliament who has yet to be tested in any of the “great offices of state” in British government (prime minister, finance minister, foreign secretary and home secretary).

She supported the campaign to leave the European Union, but is considered a more moderate voice than many other Brexit ringleaders. Mordaunt is currently House of Commons leader and came third in the race to replace Johnson over the summer.

Mordaunt became the first candidate to officially throw their hat into the ring on Friday. "I’ve been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest," she said in a tweet announcing her bid.

Her supporters are pitching her as a unity candidate: someone who can steady the ship without infighting or ideological hang-ups. 

Iain Dale, a Conservative-supporting commentator, made exactly this point in a column on Friday, claiming she can “appeal not just to all groups within the parliamentary party, but also who will reach out to members and voters with a positive, optimistic message of renewal and hope.”

A former naval reservist, Mordaunt might be most familiar for having appeared on "Splash," a mostly forgotten TV show in which celebrities competed at diving. 

Image: BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVE
Mordaunt has enjoyed a rapid rise to emerge as a leading contender in the past two leadership contests. Oli Scarff / AFP - Getty Images

Suella Braverman

It was Braverman who helped put in motion the events that brought down Truss this week.

Britain’s shortest-serving home secretary, with just 43 days to her name, she quit the government over a breach of security but issued a scathing takedown of the outgoing prime minister in her resignation letter.

Braverman stood against Truss unsuccessfully in the summer’s leadership race.

A hardline right-winger who is tough on immigration and “woke” culture war issues, she appeals to the Brexit-supporting, anti-Europe side of the Conservative Party. 

This week in Parliament she attacked the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” for a series of disruptive protests by climate activists.

She memorably said her “dream” was to see a plane full of migrants setting off from Britain to Rwanda. Britain has attracted international criticism for its policy of deporting asylum seekers to the central African nation.

Braverman’s own father fled political turmoil in Kenya by moving to England in 1968.

Image: BRITAIN-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-CABINET
Braverman is seen as firmly on the right of the party. Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images

Kemi Badenoch

A surprise break-out name from the Conservative leadership race in the summer, the current trade secretary is a rising star. 

Born in London to Nigerian parents, and relatively young at 42, she has also won credit for attacking a supposedly liberal mindset in public life. 

Badenoch is likely to draw support from a similar wing of the party to Braverman, but neither are seen as likely contenders to beat the three favorites: Johnson, Sunak and Mordaunt. 

Keir Starmer?

Meanwhile, opposition politicians continue to demand a national election so the broader public can have a say at such a precarious time for the country. 

With the Conservatives lagging so far behind in opinion polls and no vote mandated until January 2025, it seems unlikely this would happen.

But some 320,000 people have signed a petition calling for one and many will argue that the most democratic option is to put the matter to the people. 

Starmer, the Labour Party leader, would be the clear favorite to be prime minister if an election were held any time soon.

He accused the Conservatives of presiding over a “revolving door of chaos.”

“This is doing huge damage to our economy and the reputation of our country,” he said. “We must have a chance at a fresh start. We need a general election — now.”