It would usually be strange, not to say discourteous, to ask, little more than a week in, how long the new Prime Minister might conceivably last. But this is the era of short stays. Theresa May and Boris Johnson managed three years each and Liz Truss just 50 days. Rishi Sunak now leads a fragmented and fractious party, and so it is more than troublemaking to ask how long he might have.
There are some early signs that the Tory party knows it has to settle down. Sunak as Prime Minister and Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor is the most serious face a Tory government has presented for some time. The former was fluent in his first outing at Prime Minister’s Questions and his backbench support was united and vocal.
The opportunity for reinvention has been tarnished, without question, by the foolish appointment of Suella Braverman. Whether or not she is a security risk, which is quite the question to ask of a Home Secretary, she is simply not very good. Braverman does not speak for a large constituency of able rivals. She is eminently ignorable and ought to have been left to stew. Her appointment, though, is a clue to what lies beneath the surface. The Conservative Party has normalised chaotic rebellion. It won’t take much for it to reignite.
Even if the party stays intact for some or all of his premiership, Sunak might yet be just a stop-gap, the man who was forced to hold the parcel in the brief interlude when the music of the Tory civil war stopped. The critical event will be the next general election, which must be held by January 2025 at the latest but which is likely, Christmas being a poor time for a campaign, to be in the late autumn of 2024.
Sunak does have some time to establish himself and he is likely to be helped by a narrowing in the opinion polls (which have recently put Labour ahead by over 30 percentage points). His party’s performance in that election and, crucially, his own intentions thereafter, might matter profoundly to how long the Conservatives take to return as a serious contender for power.
It has become customary for the leader who loses a general election to disappear at once. This has become true not just of leaders of the opposition but of former prime ministers, too. The last prime minister to stay on to fight the next election after an electoral defeat was Harold Wilson 48 years ago, in 1974. Among the former prime ministers, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher were all disposed of by their party while in government. Gordon Brown, John Major and Jim Callaghan all resigned after losing an election and David Cameron resigned after losing a referendum. None of them carried on after being defeated to nurse their parties through opposition.
If it is assumed in Tory circles that Sunak will not emulate Wilson then the succession will soon become an issue, especially if the Conservatives continue to trail Labour in the polls, which, given the scale of the squeeze on incomes still to come, they are bound to do. The obvious best hope for the party would be for it to recover its position sufficiently that Keir Starmer cannot command an overall majority and becomes prime minister at the head of a hampered administration. If the Tories had the discipline, and Sunak the political patience, he might even conceivably be able to emulate Wilson all the way by returning to power at the next election.
There is virtually no chance at all that the Conservatives have the discipline for this, however. Probably their poker faces will crack before they even dispense with Sunak but, assuredly, they will descend into chaos once they are removed from office. Finally, then, the Conservative Party will be liberated to have the conversation about what it really is and who it is really for that has been so rudely interrupted by the need to be the actual government of the country. Does the party want to be the socially inclusive but fiscally brutal party of David Cameron and George Osborne? Or the big-spending, anti-establishment force of Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson? Or perhaps the libertarian model of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng?
Perhaps the as yet poorly defined Sunak will find another variety of Conservatism to add to the mix. From the evidence of his Mais lecture, delivered an age ago in February 2022 when he was chancellor, Sunak is Truss-esque on regulation and the size of the state but Cameron-esque on fiscal conservatism. That is not a mix likely to survive a harsh collision with reality and Sunak will instead respond to events. He is, after all, best known as a politician for the vast state handout schemes of the pandemic.
Whoever he ends up being as Prime Minister, Sunak will probably not be able to divert the torrent that is coming. The Conservative Party is tired of being in government and the public has tired of it. Time for it to depart and conduct the argument about whether it wants to go for culture wars with Kemi Badenoch, a civil war with Johnson, something of the night with Dominic Raab or all-out war with Braverman. The obvious best move would be to beg Sunak to stay but this has become a self-destructive party.