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20 June 2023

Why we should fear a Tory rout

Electoral humiliation could enable a comeback by Boris Johnson or the rise of Suella Braverman.

By Martin Fletcher

Boris Johnson has gone, imploded, utterly self-destructed. Of course I’m rejoicing. For the past five years I’ve used this space to deplore his lies, his venality, his corruption of all around him and the immense damage he has done to the UK. But my joy is not entirely unalloyed. It is marred by a persistent fear. I desperately want the Conservatives to be thrashed in the four forthcoming by-elections, and in next year’s general election, as they deserve to be. But where will that leave Rishi Sunak?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am no great fan of the Prime Minister. He played a key role in Johnson winning the Conservative leadership in 2019, and he served as a senior cabinet minister in his rotten government for the best part of three years until his belated resignation last July. But he is a marked improvement on both Johnson and Liz Truss, and his electoral humiliation could conceivably facilitate either a Johnson comeback, enthusiastically backed by his new paymaster, the Daily Mail, or, almost as bad, Sunak’s replacement by a figure such as Suella Braverman.

Britain needs a strong, decent official opposition, as we learned through Labour’s abject failure to fulfil that role during the Corbyn years. Under any other leader of the official opposition, Brexit would never have happened.

To avoid humiliation, Sunak needs to focus less on Red Wall voters in the North and Midlands – they’ve all but given up on the Tories – and focus on shoring up the Conservatives’ traditional but rapidly crumbling Blue Wall in the south. He needs to start appealing to the millions of decent, moderate ex-Tory and floating voters who remain unconvinced by Keir Starmer’s Labour but would not dream of voting for the feuding, chaotic, dishonest rabble that is the present Conservative Party.

With Johnson’s departure from parliament Sunak has – for now – no obvious challengers to his leadership and needs to seize the moment. He and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, must obviously continue their efforts to rebuild the economy after the catastrophe of Trussonomics. That means they must resist the siren calls of Tory right-wingers for cynical, unfunded pre-election cuts to corporation, inheritance and income taxes.

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[See also: Who will win the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election?]

Beyond that there is much else that Sunak could do to signal a clean break with his disgraced predecessors, and to fulfil his promise to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. He could start by expressing regret and contrition for Johnson’s appalling conduct – for his dishonesty, divisiveness, cronyism and mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. How refreshing it was, and how unusual, to hear Michael Gove apologise unequivocally yesterday for the videotaped revelry of Tory activists at the party’s headquarters in December 2020.

Next, Sunak could end the relentless demonisation of those who voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum and finally admit the obvious: that Brexit has failed to produce the “sunlit uplands” we were promised by the Leave campaign, and that our relationship with the EU needs to be urgently reset.

His Windsor framework was a start, but Sunak has still failed explicitly to renounce the Big Lie that holds his party hostage and hinders growth. Does anybody seriously believe a man of Sunak’s intelligence, who geekishly pores over spreadsheets, does not realise that Brexit has been a disaster?

He could do much more to deplore Johnson’s scandalous conduct, just as Keir Starmer condemned Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism after he became Labour leader. His failure to comment or vote on the Privileges Committee’s damning report was plain cowardice. He should condemn his predecessor both for lying to the House of Commons, and for his outrageous refusal to accept the report’s conclusions. He should make clear that he will prevent any Conservative constituency association from adopting Johnson as a candidate. He should seek to recover the very substantial fees that the government paid to Johnson’s lawyers.

It may be too late for him to block Johnson’s disgraceful resignation honours list, with its preponderance of sycophants, “partygate” offenders and other manifestly undeserving names, but he could promise swift and comprehensive reform of a thoroughly discredited honours system so it can never be abused so blatantly again.

He should stop pandering to the hard-right members of his parliamentary party by supporting inhuman immigration policies and backtracking on climate change and other measures.

He should remove his serially disloyal, ethically challenged, nakedly ambitious and politically extreme Home Secretary – Braverman – from his cabinet.

He should crack down on right-wing insurrectionists such as “Sir” Jacob Rees-Mogg and – should she remain in the Commons – Nadine Dorries who now speak for almost nobody except themselves.

And one more thing. Sunak should change the rules so future Conservative prime ministers can never again be imposed on the country by a tiny, wildly unrepresentative faction of scarcely 180,000 hardline party members as Johnson and Truss were.

Even if Sunak were to do all of the above, and more besides, I doubt the Tories could recover sufficiently to win the next election. After 13 years in power they are too loathed, too reviled, too fractured and exhausted to win a fifth consecutive term. But much as our hearts would love to see them utterly humiliated at the polls, we should perhaps be careful what we wish for.

[See also: What do the Conservatives have to show for 13 years in office?]

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