Are the Tories about to go full Berlusconi?

The Bungafication of the Conservative Party

Is it possible that the Conservative Party is going to recycle its last Prime Minister, the one who was kicked out amidst multiple scandals after sixty of his ministers resigned in despair? Yes it is.

A composite image showing Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi and British politician Boris Johnson side by side, both covering their faces with their palms
The Brotherhood of Party Animals

SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE. Sunak has achieved the 100 nominations he needs to go through to the members’ vote, according to his supporters, but he’s not said he’ll stand yet. Seems likely he will, though, since close allies, including Oliver Dowden, are tweeting their support. Johnson lags behind but, according to the lists kept by those in the know, he’s still in second place with MPs (and he’s back from the Dominican Republic). In a twist we probably should have anticipated, according to one reporter, Tory members are pressuring their MPs to support Johnson, in some cases threatening them with deselection. Penny Mordaunt, currently in a pretty poor third place, is the first to say she’s standing. A lot could change over the weekend, though.


Screenshot of betting for Conservative leader at 2pm on 21 October 2022

FRIDAY’S POST. To be clear, after an early surge in support Thursday night, Boris Johnson has now settled to second-favourite to replace Liz Truss as leader with the bookmakers, behind his nemesis Rishi Sunak. The insiders tracking MPs’ support for the likely candidates also have Johnson second behind Sunak (Cautious Conservative Home, more gung-ho Guido Fawkes). Paul Goodman, grizzled observer of the party, says Johnson is unlikely to pass the nomination threshold. In case you were wondering, the best you’ll get on Oliver Dowden is 200-1 – and his odds are drifting. Save your money. He’s still firmly on #TeamRishi and is apparently busy surveying MPs about their support for the former Chancellor. Meanwhile, our conscientious MP still has his head down and has been asking technical questions of the DCMS. Always fascinating to note that the ordinary business of Parliament goes on, no matter what else is happening.

As we often say here, we’re not insiders. We’re not in the torrid WhatsApp groups. We just watch the news like you do. So we can’t be sure that the Tories will embrace full Bungafication and appoint Johnson again. Some red wall MPs have convinced themselves only Johnson can save their seats. Members, ever divorced from reality, are obviously up for it. Donors seem keen too.

Boris Johnson is obviously not Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian tycoon’s rap sheet is a yard long, he’s a fraud and a serial abuser. He’s been expelled from and re-entered politics half a dozen times but, remarkably, he’s returning to government and he’s embroiled in another potentially career-ending scandal as we write.

But Johnson’s debt to the original political party animal is evident. His resilience in the face of scandal, his flexibility with regard to the truth and his jaw-dropping readiness to brazen out catastrophes political, legal and parental is pure Berlusconi. As is his style of ‘governing-as-campaigning’ – for leaders of the Berlusconi-Johnson variety, there’s no steady period of heads-down government between campaigns. It’s all-campaigning-all-the-time.

The Economist's cover for October 22 - 28 2022, with an illustration showing UK Prime Minister Liz Truss as Britannia holding huge fork loaded with spaghetti. The headline reads 'Welcome to Britaly'

We’re not the only ones to see the resemblance to Italian politics in the current crisis. The Economist’s latest cover is headed ‘Welcome to Britaly’ and the leader article finds a close resemblance to recent Italian history: “A country of political instability, low growth and subordination to the bond markets.” The Italians themselves are furious about the comparison, which they say is insulting (although it mostly seems to be the spaghetti they’re unhappy with). There are jokes about the insertion of a technocratic caretaker Prime Minister (remember when Merkel and the European Commission removed Berlusconi from power? Brexit took that option off the table). People are calling Jeremy Hunt ‘the British Mario Draghi‘.

Bringing Johnson back would surely complete the analogy. Buona fortuna Gran Bretagna!

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