As Boris Johnson bade farewell to Parliament during Prime Minister’s Questions last week, he signed off: “Hasta la vista, baby.”
The Terminator-inspired quip literally means “see you later” – taken by some as evidence that the outgoing Prime Minister is already plotting his comeback.
Allies of Mr Johnson have been briefing his favourite newspaper and former employer, The Telegraph, on how this apparently outlandish idea could become reality.
But the Prime Minister himself has remained resolutely silent in public on any future plans – and in truth, any comeback would be impossible to pull off given the circumstances of his departure.
On the ballot paper
An online campaign to put Mr Johnson’s name on the Tory leadership ballot going out to party members next week claims to have attracted more than 10,000 signatures from “party members” – though critics noted there was little to stop people filling it out repeatedly with false information.
The idea is that, as well as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, members would have the option to renew the current leader’s mandate.
There are serious practical obstacles to this plan. It would be a clear breach of the Tory party rulebook, which states that a leader who has resigned cannot stand again, with only the two candidates most popular among MPs going forward to the membership.
Any change would have to take place within days, and be approved by the 1922 Committee of backbenchers who broadly oppose Mr Johnson anyway.
In the unlikely event that the Prime Minister did cling on to power, he would find it difficult to find enough MPs to serve as ministers in his Government. Many of those who took office earlier this month did so only on the understanding that Mr Johnson was stepping down.
New party leaders usually receive a polling bounce – but in the middle of an inflation crisis there is no guarantee that will happen with Mr Sunak or Ms Truss.
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former aide who is now his most devoted enemy, claims the Prime Minister is backing Ms Truss because he thinks “there’s a chance she blows, there’s another contest and I can return”.
If the new leader did end up leaving office before the next general election, nothing would stop Mr Johnson from standing to replace them – as long as he has not left the Commons altogether. But he would need the backing of at least 100 Tory MPs, which would be difficult given the resentment many of them feel about the manner of his departure.
Back in opposition
While Mr Johnson will certainly claim to be supporting the new leader enthusiastically at the next election, likely to take place in 2024, he might feel some quiet satisfaction in the event they fail to repeat his achievement of 2019 and win a Commons majority.
Friends have told The Telegraph that in that scenario, he could seek a return to the leadership and once again take on Sir Keir Starmer at the despatch box, doubling down on his claim to have a unique bond with the voters.
But it is questionable whether a man known for his hatred of being tied down, who has two young children and whose earning potential will soar perhaps tenfold when he is out of office, would really be keen to spend up to five years as Leader of the Opposition ahead of an election which would come when he is around 65-years-old.