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23 December 2022

Rishi Sunak is taking a big risk by playing it so safe

The Prime Minister shouldn’t throw so much red meat to his party’s dissenting factions. It will only embolden them.

By Martha Gill

It is an approach that smacks of caution but in some circumstances it becomes reckless. Appeasement. Once you start, it can be hard to stop.

Rishi Sunak revealed early in his premiership that appeasement would be his method for dealing with his party’s warring factions. In order to soothe the groups to which they belonged, he stuffed his cabinet with unlikely figures, a decision that almost immediately came back to bite him, such as the appointment of Suella Braverman. It was a move that would also store up trouble for the future. If you choose to appoint someone as a representation of an important group, as in Braverman’s case, sacking them becomes very difficult indeed.

Sunak was learning a lesson from the sorry fate of his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss: don’t ignore large parts of your party. But there’s a risk he learned it slightly too well. There’s a second lesson that winds a thread through the three prime ministers preceding Truss: David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Don’t throw too much red meat to your party’s dissenting factions. It will only embolden them.

At present Sunak is trapped by his party – at least four brawling groups keep him steering a narrow course. One of these is centrist Conservatives from southern England, who fear they will be displaced by the Liberal Democrats. Their main project right now is to persuade Sunak to reverse his planning reforms, which they worry will lose them the votes of home counties homeowners. Another is the Trussites – those who have not yet given up on her radical ideas for growth – whose current focus is to force Sunak to allow more onshore wind and other building. The third group are Johnson supporters aggrieved that Sunak was elected without a vote from party members, and the fourth are MPs who are standing down and feel able to vote as they like.

These groups are making it very difficult for the Prime Minister to do anything much at all, and his early premiership has been defined by U-turns and fudging. Earlier this month, for example, Conservatives in southern seats forced Sunak to water down his planning reforms. But unless they build more houses the Tories have almost nothing to offer younger voters at the next election. The party used to be able to rely on people ageing into Conservatism as they started families and bought homes – no longer. This is a move that will harm the party. Can Sunak really do nothing to stop it?

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There is a narrative that Sunak’s approach – trying not to rock the boat – is the only one available to him. To a certain extent this is true: parliamentary mathematics put a hard limit on how radical he can be. But the Tory party has been riven with splits for the past four premierships, and prime ministers have had all sorts of approaches to dissidents. The most effective was not always to simply give in. Boris Johnson held various brawling groups together through sheer personality, as well as a lot of (vague) individual promises and a hint of pork-barrel politics. Theresa May, although she ultimately failed, saw off a fair few revolts because of the work of whips such as Gavin Williamson, who employed the dark arts required to motivate stray MPs.

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There is an argument that Sunak is not making full use of the options available to him. These days the whips office is increasingly emasculated – the loss of Williamson sealed its demise. Some have argued that this is a positive step towards reducing the bullying culture in parliament that has sparked so many scandals. Yet arm-twisting and favours have always been part of getting bills through parliament. Without it, a prime minister’s tools become rather blunt – they have the power to sack ministers (and add to the numbers of backbenchers with a grudge) – and that’s about it.

Of course, Sunak has a problem that his predecessors did not. His MPs know their party is unlikely to win the next election. But this doesn’t have to mean the end of party discipline. Those least motivated to help their party have already left or will shortly do so, to be replaced by more eager newcomers. Not all MPs are convinced the party will lose the next election. And even those who think the Tories are on track for a spell in opposition have a personal motive to make it a “good defeat”: wanting to keep their seats. Rallying behind their leader is the way to make this happen.

The past six years in politics have showed us the consequences of David Cameron’s fatal choice to feed a dissenting faction. It ended up eating his party. Sunak’s policy of appeasement will at some point only widen splits – each group will only want more. In order to heal his party Sunak needs to do something counterintuitive: take a stance and risk making a few enemies.

[See also: Is Suella Braverman being set up to fail?]

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