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15 February 2023

Rishi Sunak’s middle ground strategy pleases no one

The Prime Minister faces two diagnoses of the Conservatives’ problems, and two contradictory solutions.

By Charlotte Ivers

Rishi Sunak has a problem, again. There is a pervading sense of apathy within the Conservative ranks in Parliament. Whips report that they are struggling to encourage some MPs to turn up to vote. Many are retiring at the next election, will see their seats disappear in the boundary changes, or have simply given up hope of holding their marginal constituencies. Consequently, as has so often been the case in recent years, the government’s large majority feels much smaller to those tasked with keeping it intact.

However, there is something more going on beyond MPs feeling like they have already handed in their notice. There is a distinct sense that the Prime Minister is failing to provide a reason for Conservatives to get excited about his project. It’s a widely held sentiment, but that is where the consensus ends. Everyone can see there is a problem, but opinion is deeply divided over how to fix it.

One frequent complaint is that Sunak has neglected to sufficiently differentiate himself from the Johnson project. “He has failed to clear the hurdle set for him of being better than Boris Johnson on this stuff,” one MP told me last week, referring to the ongoing investigation into claims of bullying against Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Sunak’s allies, for their part, highlight the swift action he took against Nadhim Zahawi, the party chairman, who was found to have paid a tax penalty to HMRC while he was chancellor. The Prime Minister’s dissenters are less than convinced, pointing to the fact that stories about Zahawi’s financial affairs had been circling for months, including when Sunak appointed him. While few MPs believe that their constituents have much interest in the HR arrangements of the government, most feel that the failure to control this type of issue is leading to a broad sense among the public that the government is beset by sleaze. Speak long enough to a Tory MP at the moment and they will begin to mutter darkly about John Major and his ridiculed “back to basics” campaign.

Those who subscribe to the belief that Sunak has failed to differentiate himself from Johnson hope for – in that most meaningless of Westminster terms – a bold new agenda to present to the public at the next election. “We have to give people something to actually vote for,” one told me, rather than “managing decline” and hoping voters do not consider Labour a sufficiently exciting alternative.

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The trouble is that, at present, government policy is dictated by Johnson’s manifesto. Government insiders make the case that this is the only policy platform for which the party has a mandate from the public. There is a pragmatic element too. Ministers can argue to potentially rebellious MPs that this was the manifesto on which they were elected: they have a duty to their constituents to toe the line.

For some the obligation to stick to the Johnson project goes beyond political expediency. It is a passion project. Johnson loyalists still hark back to the electoral success of 2019. We had a winning agenda, the argument goes. Why change it now? Moreover, for a small but vocal hard core, the Johnson project alone is not enough. Johnson too must return.

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MPs who hold this view constitute a small proportion of the parliamentary Conservative Party. However, there is a much larger contingent who hold a moderated version of this position. MPs recently have begun to express frustration that their party seems unwilling to defend its record for the last thirteen or so years; some draw parallels with Labour’s desire to disown its New Labour record under Jeremy Corbyn.

“We seem to have just accepted the idea that everything has just got worse for the last thirteen years,” one MP said, “rather than putting forward the case that we have actually made a lot of positive changes.” For these MPs the era of the 2007 financial crash still looms large. They would like to see Sunak highlight the state of the country that David Cameron inherited, and draw focus to the improvements that have been made since.

And so Rishi Sunak has a problem, again. He faces two diagnoses, and two apparently contradictory solutions. Does he lean in to defending his government’s record, developing a coherent narrative of improvement that spans the last thirteen years? Or does he present himself – as his predecessor did – as a change candidate, a clean break with the past? At present he seems to have picked a middle ground between the two: never quite willing to actively promote his party’s record, but equally never declaring a new era. It feels rather like an attempt to please everyone. In Parliament, at least, it seems to be pleasing nobody. For Conservative MPs, the pervading fear is that the public will feel the same at the next election.

Read more:

Rishi Sunak, the man who isn’t there

How Rishi Sunak could be out by the end of the year

Conservatives are losing confidence in Rishi Sunak

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