Boris Johnson is already plotting how he could return to power and save the Conservatives at the next general election, former cabinet ministers say.
The departing prime minister – forced out of No 10 by an accumulation of scandals – will nevertheless be dreaming of how his party will turn back to him “in desperation”, they argue.
“We know that he was ambitious to be prime minister and stay prime minister,” David Gauke, a former justice secretary, said in a magazine article.
“We know that he considered his removal to be a great injustice and the consequence of MPs acting like a herd of irrational wildebeest unnecessarily panicked into a stampede.
“We know that people around him peddled fantasies about him being immediately restored to office by a membership write-in campaign, and that he did little to discourage them.
“There is a sense that his story is not yet done, that he is entitled to another go at the top job. Churchill, after all, had a second term.”
The scenario, set out in the New Statesman magazine, was endorsed by a second former Tory big hitter, ex-international development secretary Rory Stewart, who said it is “not unlikely”.
One Opinium survey found that 63 per cent prefer the departing prime minister over Liz Truss, the likely winner of the Tory leadership race, who was backed by just 22 per cent.
This “seller’s remorse” threatens to be a big headache for the next leader – especially if, as rumoured, Mr Johnson turns up at the October party conference and receives a hero’s welcome.
Many Conservatives fear neither Ms Truss nor Mr Sunak can keep together the Tory 2019 election-winning coalition of the party’s southern heartlands and the northern red-wall gains during an economic crisis.
Mr Gauke suggested Mr Johnson will view the circumstances as eerily similar to 2019, when he became leader as “a vote winner, capable of reaching parts of the electorate that no other Conservative could reach”.
“It is not impossible to imagine that the situation in late 2023 – the government heading to defeat, a vulnerable prime minister unpopular with MPs – may look a lot like spring 2019,” he said.
“And the Conservative Party, when faced with such a situation, may come up with the same solution.”
One obstacle, Mr Gauke said, is the privileges committee inquiry into whether Mr Johnson lied to parliament over the No 10 parties, but his allies are already trying to kill it off.