Boris Johnson is considering staging an extraordinary political comeback if he is cleared by the parliamentary inquiry into Partygate, i understands.
The former prime minister is preparing a robust defence against charges that he misled the Commons over his knowledge of gatherings in Downing Street, both in a dossier of written evidence and in a four-hour testimony to the Privileges Committee on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson’s 50-page dossier is expected to be published by the committee on Tuesday.
In a sign that Mr Johnson is already in fightback mode, sources close to him said if his evidence was regarded as “strong” and the process is seen to have been “navigated well” by Mr Johnson, that could “generate further considerable interest in his political future”.
This suggests he believes he could use a potentially favourable outcome by the committee as a springboard for a comeback among Tory MPs.
Allies are banking on the fact that there are potentially dozens of Conservative MPs who were ready to back Mr Johnson in a leadership contest against Rishi Sunak last October – before the ex-PM decided to step aside and give Mr Sunak a clear run to No10 – who could rally to his side once again.
The outcome of the local elections in May, when the Conservatives are expected to perform badly, is seen by allies of Mr Johnson as a key factor in whether they would urge him to challenge for the leadership.
However, Mr Sunak has strengthened his position as Prime Minister since the New Year, with deals made on public sector strike action, signs of optimism on inflation and economic growth and, despite the setback of the DUP pulling their support, some progress on a post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland with the Windsor Framework.
Critics of Mr Johnson inside the Conservative party and elsewhere in Westminster will also find it extraordinary that the ex-PM is considering a return to the political frontline after a record number of ministers resigned from his government in protest at his handling of sleaze.
Central to Mr Johnson’s defence will be his argument that he was acting on the advice of officials when he told the Commons all gatherings were within the rules.
There is a possibility that the seven-strong committee, which is chaired by the Labour MP Harriet Harman but consists of four Conservative MPs, could be deadlocked over whether to find Mr Johnson inadvertently misled parliament, or whether he did so wilfully.
A third option available to them is to rule that he “recklessly” misled MPs – if they decide that he did not know what he was saying was wrong, but as prime minister should have made the effort to find out.
Yet the optimism of Mr Johnson’s camp may be misplaced, as an interim report by the Privileges Committee earlier this month concluded that it should have been “obvious” to the then prime minister that parties were taking place in Downing Street against covid rules.
The MPs have also listed four ways in which they believe Mr Johnson may have misled parliament.
If this week’s hearing goes badly for the ex-PM, and the committee eventually rules against him, Mr Johnson faces the possibility of a recall petition in his seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip – if the Commons votes for it.
Sources close to Mr Johnson point out that he has strong support in his constituency, and was reselected as Conservative candidate for the seat last week.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson insisted there was no change to his plans for 2023 as a backbench Tory MP, saying: “As he has made clear, he will continue to campaign on issues that matter to him greatly, including Ukraine, levelling up and Brexit.”