What exactly will Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives campaign on at next year’s general election? What conspicuous achievements will they be able to offer voters? A strong economy? A robust NHS? Decent public services? Falling immigration? Honest, competent governance? Any of the above would be a stretch, to put it mildly.
No, we got a sneak preview of Sunak’s strategy when he was interviewed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday (25 June). Most sane people probably had better things to do than watch a political chat show on a glorious Sunday morning in late June, so let me recap.
Sitting in the garden of No 10, Kuenssberg asked Sunak whether he agreed with the Privileges Committee’s verdict that Boris Johnson knowingly lied to the House of Commons about partygate, and why he avoided the House of Commons vote on the issue last week. Cue lots of flannel from the Prime Minister about how he supported the committee’s work but could not vote on its report because he was attending a charitable fundraising event. Yet again he failed explicitly to condemn his predecessor’s conduct.
But he then added what was clearly a prepared line: “I’m not interested in litigating the past about Boris Johnson. He’s no longer an MP. The choice at the next election is between me and Keir Starmer. Actually, what I demonstrated by resigning from Boris Johnson’s government was that I was prepared to stand up for my principles. Keir Starmer sat there for four years next to Jeremy Corbyn saying that he was the right person to lead the country. Right? That speaks to his principles, and my resignation speaks to mine.”
There we have it. Sunak plans to go low and personal. He plans to turn the election into a referendum on “character” – his and Starmer’s. And he plans to paint Starmer as Corbyn’s apologist and enabler.
I would not go as far as the comedian Ben Elton, who branded Sunak a “mendacious, narcissistic sociopath” in a subsequent interview with Kuenssberg and triggered furious protests in the right-wing press. “BBC accused of anti-Tory bias as Ben Elton brands Rishi Sunak a ‘narcissistic sociopath’,” the Daily Telegraph fulminated. “BBC blasted after comedian Ben Elton launches furious rant against Rishi Sunak,” the Daily Express protested.
But I do share Elton’s outrage at Sunak’s ugly jibe.
Yes, Sunak resigned as chancellor last July, but he did so only after it became clear that Johnson’s scandal-plagued premiership was imploding – and after Sajid Javid, the health secretary, had led the way.
Prior to that day Sunak had served as the most senior minister in Johnson’s government for two and a half years, not once complaining about the prime minister’s venality. He remained silent as Johnson lied, broke the law, partied during the Covid lockdowns, rewarded cronies with peerages, jobs and government contracts, picked needless fights with Europe, squandered vast amounts of public money, attacked supposedly impartial institutions, reneged on election promises and defended the misconduct of his ministers and MPs.
Worse, Sunak as much as anyone was responsible for Johnson reaching No 10. A key moment in the 2019 Conservative Party leadership election came when he and two other rising Tory stars – Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick – declared their support for Johnson in a gushing article in the Times.
Sunak does have a point about Starmer serving under Corbyn between 2016 and 2020, but the situations were hardly comparable. Corbyn was leader of the opposition, not prime minister. And to the best of my recollection Starmer, as shadow Brexit secretary, did not meekly accept Corbyn’s de facto support for Leave: he sought to manoeuvre Labour into backing a second referendum.
Once Starmer supplanted Corbyn as Labour leader, moreover, he moved decisively to purge all traces of Corbynism from the party. Anti-Semitism has been expunged. Corbyn’s membership has been suspended. Only a tiny rump of Corbynites remain – none in positions of influence. As the Times’s Rachel Sylvester has noted, former MPs such as Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes and Angela Smith, who left Corbyn’s Labour Party in disgust, have now rejoined. Berger is even being mooted as Labour’s candidate against Corbyn in Islington North.
Sadly the same cannot yet be said of Sunak’s Conservative Party. Johnson may no longer be an MP, but he still has a significant following in the party as a whole, and he can still cause serious problems for his successor.
Sunak is too weak to condemn Johnson’s egregious conduct as prime minister, or to rein in his apologists. He has failed to stop Johnson’s scandalous resignation honours list. He has retained Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. His Windsor framework was welcome, but he cannot admit that Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal was a disaster.
There’s certainly no sign that the likes of Rory Stewart or Nick Boles, or any of the many other decent centrist Tory stalwarts purged by Johnson, are thinking of rejoining a reformed Conservative Party.
It’s not hard to understand why Sunak would not want to fight the looming election on the Conservatives’ record after 13 abysmal years in government. But it’s far from clear that he can win by running on the “character” issue either. As the Prime Minister parried Kuenssberg’s questions, viewers could hear Big Ben chiming in the background. It sounded like a death knell.
[See also: Is Keir Starmer doomed?]