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Boris Johnson will campaign in Red Wall despite tensions with Rishi Sunak on levelling up

Boris Johnson will help campaign in Red Wall seats to secure the Conservatives a fifth term in office, but wants Rishi Sunak to fight on the levelling up agenda from his 2019 manifesto, i understands.

The former prime minister’s camp is in talks with Downing Street to deploy him in this year’s general election, in an attempt to head off a devastating defeat for the Tories.

Mr Johnson is expected to make clear he believes the party should remind Red Wall voters of the key elements of the manifesto that won him a landslide five years ago, including his flagship policy.

But the Prime Minister’s aides, including campaign chief Isaac Levido, want the election to be fought on the economy and immigration, with levelling up not expected to be a core theme – setting up a potential clash between Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak.

Mr Johnson is committed to campaigning for the Tories rather than any other party, however, and allies ruled out any prospect of him following Lee Anderson and defecting to Reform UK.

While Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak have not directly spoken for more than a year, apart from a brief exchange of words at the Cenotaph in November, relations between their two camps have improved dramatically over the past 12 months, and exploratory talks have been taking place between aides about what role the ex-PM could play to keep the Tories in office.

This is a significant improvement from early 2023, when both sides were locked in a briefing war after Mr Johnson blamed Mr Sunak for helping topple him as prime minister. Neither camp is engaged in hostile briefing against the other as the election draws nearer, allies said.

As i revealed a year ago, Mr Johnson has already been conducting some low-level campaigning in the Red Wall seats of his allies since stepping down as prime minister in 2022.

The Times reported on Tuesday that Mr Johnson would be deployed in the election in these seats in the north of England and Midlands won by the Tories in 2019, although a government source told the newspaper he would unlikely be asked to share a stage with the current PM.

But i understands that Mr Johnson and his aides have not yet decided what role he will play in the election, and that, given he has a packed travel schedule and other commitments such as speaking engagements and writing, he is unlikely to be able to take part in the full six-week campaign.

The date of the general election is being kept a closely guarded secret, and Mr Johnson’s camp has not been told when it might be. This suggests that plans are not at an advanced stage and therefore Mr Sunak is likely to be sticking to an autumn election, despite recent speculation that he could call one for 2 May.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “Boris Johnson’s focus at the moment is writing and speaking and he is very productively engaged on that. His position has been consistently in support of the Conservative Party for his entire political life and that will remain so.”

Friends of the ex-prime minister suggested the Times story had been briefed by No10 to deflect attention from Mr Anderson’s defection to Reform UK.

A Tory MP ally of Mr Johnson told i: “I am not sure it is much of a story. Boris promised to help people in their constituencies ages ago.”

Another Conservative MP and supporter of Mr Johnson questioned whether his campaigning in Red Wall seats would make much of a difference to the outcome of the election, saying: “People like Boris, they respect Boris, but he would simply be someone who was working for a leader who is frankly not up to it.”

And Nadine Dorries, another friend of Mr Johnson, wrote on Twitter: “This story has been panic placed by No10 – probably by Issac Levido in a desperate attempt to halt any further defections to Reform.”

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