The best that can be said about Rishi Sunak’s year is that he just about survived it. Unfashionable though it might be to say so, it could have been worse.
The fundamental situation for Sunak and the government is grim. The Conservatives trail Labour by around 20 points in the polls, Tory morale is low, the right is in revolt, Suella Braverman is causing difficulties over illegal immigration, and there is concern that Nigel Farage is poised to return to front-line politics and further damage the Tories’ standing.
It is a useful discipline as a columnist to revisit previous predictions and judge their prescience. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a piece noting Labour’s poll lead (20 points), low Tory morale, disgruntlement on the right, Suella Braverman making a nuisance of herself, and growing fears of a Farage comeback. As Theresa May might put it, nothing has changed.
The question I asked last year was whether 2023 would be the year in which the right – which lost two prime ministers of its choice in 2022 and has never been convinced by Sunak – would strike back.
To which the answer is no, not really. The right of the parliamentary party has caused plenty of trouble. Even a few weeks ago there seemed a possibility that the Safety of Rwanda Bill would trigger a new Tory civil war. The revolt of the right, however, fizzled out when not a single Conservative MP voted against the legislation.
But good moments for the Prime Minister – whether as a consequence of skill or fortune – have been few and far between this year. He deserves credit for negotiating the Windsor framework with the EU in February, partially clearing up a mess created by one of his predecessors over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland. The predecessor in question, Boris Johnson, was joined by another predecessor, Liz Truss, in opposing the deal but remarkably few other Conservative MPs (22 to be precise) voted against it.
Sunak deserves much less credit for the Rwanda bill, a rather objectionable piece of legislation (if not as objectionable as it might have been) that would declare the African country a safe place to send asylum seekers. He will face more problems with the policy next year, but largely from those One Nation MPs who think it goes too far rather than not far enough.
Between those two legislative moments came Sunak’s biggest stroke of luck. The Standards and Privileges Committee report on Johnson was damning and effectively removed its subject from parliament. Sunak did himself damage with the country by missing the parliamentary vote endorsing Johnson’s punishment and he could have done without the heavy by-election defeats that indirectly followed in Selby and Ainsty and Mid Bedfordshire. But not having Johnson in the Commons all but ensured that Sunak was safe from a Tory coup.
[See also: The maverick of Fleet Street]
Extraordinary though it is that anyone could believe Johnson should return as prime minister (especially after his floundering performance at the Covid-19 inquiry), he does retain an appeal with the element of the electorate that voted Tory in 2019 but has since deserted the party. It is also true that removing Sunak and replacing him with a fourth leader since the 2019 election would be stretching the patience of voters too far. Reverting to the leader who won that election would have been another matter.
That option is no longer available. All but a small minority of Conservative MPs are reconciled to Sunak leading them into a general election.
And that, pretty much, ends the good news for Sunak. Conservative MPs have little choice but to stick with him; Conservative voters not so much. Brexit has been done and Jeremy Corbyn has been stopped so there is not much else that unites the coalition which supported the Tories in 2019. There is no route to a Conservative majority without both the Red Wall and the Blue Wall, and Sunak is trapped by an inability to appeal to both groups simultaneously.
The Prime Minister is a capable administrator but lacks both political nous and a sense of direction. One day he is the candidate of “change”, the next he brings back David Cameron. Having reshuffled his cabinet to look more centrist, he immediately doubled down on the Rwanda plan. Both wings of the Conservative Party will continue to think that their leader is trying too hard to appeal to the other side.
In any event, Tory canvassers complain that the electorate has stopped listening to them. The polls might improve as the public starts to consider the election as a choice between two parties, rather than merely a judgement on the incumbents. But the polls might not. Taxes will continue to go up, public services will continue to be squeezed, and living standards will continue to fall. The Rwanda bill could still expose irreconcilable differences on the European Convention on Human Rights.
Morale would be further damaged by likely by-election defeats in Wellingborough and, if Scott Benton is removed by his constituents, Blackpool South in early 2024. Sunak is unlikely to terminate his premiership earlier than necessary, so the Tories will have to endure a pummelling at the local elections in May before going to the country in the autumn. A Labour majority of 30 to 40 has long looked a good bet but a landslide is not out of the question.
And then what? The right did not strike in 2023, but after a general election defeat all constraints will be gone. As will Sunak. The right will complain that the outgoing leader was never a proper Conservative. He put up taxes; he kept us in the European Convention on Human Rights and failed to stop the small-boat crossings of the Channel. Look at the votes lost to Reform UK, they will cry, even if many more were lost to Labour. Bring back Johnson! And Nigel! Unless there is a dramatic influx of moderates, the party membership will be minded to vote for the candidate who makes this argument, which incidentally makes Priti Patel (50-1 with some bookies) a good outside bet to be the next Tory leader.
Yes, Sunak was not removed by the right of his party in 2023 and almost certainly will not be this side of a general election. But the right’s recapture of the party leadership looks only a matter of time.