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Why we could be seeing a lot more of Boris Johnson soon

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20: Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns home after a morning run on February 20, 2023 in London, England. According to reports, Johnson is against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's plans to overhaul Northern Ireland's post-Brexit arrangements. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson returns home after a morning run earlier this week. (Getty Images)

After failing in his desperate, last-ditch attempt to become prime minister again following the disastrous reign of Liz Truss, Boris Johnson retreated to the backbenches... and a slew of lucrative speaking appearances.

But just a few months later and there is a sense he is now re-emerging onto the frontline of UK politics.

And it's all to do – of course – with Brexit. Namely the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol was agreed as part of Johnson's Brexit deal to prevent a hard border with Ireland. It effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods, meaning checks on products crossing from Great Britain.

The situation led to the collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland, with the DUP protesting about the barrier to trade with the rest of the UK.

Downing Street has set no deadline for resolving the issue, but the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April adds to the imperative of getting a deal soon.

Johnson's rival, Rishi Sunak, today told The Sunday Times his administration is "giving it everything we've got" to finalise a deal to fix issues with the protocol.

Watch: Sunday's politics briefing

The PM said he was hopeful of a "positive outcome" in the talks with the EU as Westminster braces for a new-look protocol to be unveiled.

And Downing Street will be anxiously waiting for Johnson's view on the new terms, especially after he implored Sunak this week not to drop his Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would unilaterally overwrite parts of the treaty.

In his intervention this week, Johnson – who still carries great influence in Conservative circles – declined to say whether he would back any new deal negotiated by Sunak on the protocol. Johnson said the bill put forward when he was PM is the "best way forward".

In the 2019 general election, it was Johnson, with his "get Brexit done" mantra, who achieved a stunning majority for the Conservatives and oversaw the UK's departure from the EU weeks later, in January 2020.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 13: Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend the National Service Of Remembrance at The Cenotaph on November 13, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson attend the National Service Of Remembrance at The Cenotaph in November. (Getty Images)

Any sense in Johnson's mind that he has been undermined could lead to an explosive intervention, something he has past form for. In 2018, he resigned as Theresa May's foreign secretary, saying her strategy was leading to a "semi-Brexit".

And The Sunday Times reported today that Johnson "is contemplating another scene-stealing act to torpedo the deal and undermine Sunak, who it is said he still hopes to oust from Downing Street".

It comes after Tory former chancellor George Osborne said Johnson is "causing trouble" because he is "interested in becoming prime minister again".

Read more: Rishi Sunak: We're 'giving it everything' to seal deal on Northern Ireland Protocol

Osborne told Channel 4's The Andrew Neil Show on Sunday last week: "He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it – and if the Northern Ireland negotiations are that instrument, he will pick that up and hit Mr Sunak over the head with it."

Adding to Sunak's headache is the fact Johnson's interventions have been supported by people in his cabinet, most notably House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, who twice went close to becoming prime minister last year.

She told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme last week: "Boris is being Boris. But I wouldn't say this is a completely unhelpful intervention."

Mordaunt added it is "helpful to remind the EU of that bill, and what this deal actually has to deliver".