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21 March 2024updated 26 Mar 2024 5:53pm

Ousting Rishi Sunak would make a bad situation worse

A fourth prime minister in one parliament would simply make the Conservatives look self-obsessed.

By David Gauke

With Labour 20 points or more ahead, a general election likely within eight months and seemingly nothing remedying the situation, it would not be a surprise if the Conservative Party was inclined to panic. In terms of pure political survival, this is not necessarily irrational. The Tories panicked in 2019, put Boris Johnson into Downing Street and ended up with an 80-seat majority. In the past ten days, the conversation within the Conservative Party has got a little louder as to whether it should enter panic mode and remove yet another leader.

The case for ousting Rishi Sunak is a straightforward one. His critics argue that the Tories are heading for defeat and that Sunak is losing popularity. He shows no signs of being a capable campaigner and lacks a clear vision for the country. Sunak’s foes ask what the Tories have to lose. Dump him, they argue, because there is at least some chance that the public will take to the new leader.

Such a move would be a mistake and I do not think it will happen. But there is much truth to these arguments.

Sunak has had a bad few days. He made errors in his handling of the Conservative donor Frank Hester. It was a testing situation and few party leaders would rush to hand back £10m-£15m worth of donations. But the trouble is that Sunak’s hesitancy reinforces the perception that he is indecisive, slow to grasp the politics of the situation, and too willing to avoid offending powerful forces within his own party.

The biggest strategic error he made was his refusal to fully distance himself from Boris Johnson’s moral failings and Liz Truss’s economic ones. Not only has that prevented the Conservative Party from minimising the electoral fallout of these events, it has also made Sunak look weak.

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Had he forcefully condemned Truss’s fiscal recklessness (which he warned against in his 2022 leadership campaign) and had he voted for the sanctions against Johnson recommended by the Commons’ Standards & Privileges Committee, he would have provoked his Tory critics but been both gutsy and on the side of public opinion (politicians rarely get the chance to be both at the same time). He could have defined himself favourably at the beginning of his premiership and subsequent moments of equivocation (as every party leader will have from time to time) would have been viewed less harshly.

As it is, he did not, the public do not see him as a leader and he polls badly. The problem for the Tories is that the alternative options are worse.

The apparent favoured option among the plotters is that the party unifies around Penny Mordaunt, and she becomes prime minister after a political coronation (coronations being an undoubted strength of hers). Polling suggests that Mordaunt is the most popular potential Tory leader among the public; she has support across the party; and, although she denies being behind the current speculation, she evidently has ambitions for the top job.

The problem with the plan is not so much Mordaunt but with the idea that there could be a seamless handover of power. Mordaunt does have support across the party – she is personally well-liked by MPs, hard to place politically and by temperament would want to appeal more to centre-ground voters. But she also has her enemies. Much of the right-wing media does not think she is an ally, and social conservatives – in particular – distrust her.  The Sunakites (and there are some) would be resentful.  

Sunak would not be the only one of her predecessors with who she would have a difficult relationship. Mordaunt – to her credit – informed the Covid inquiry that her messages from Johnson had mysteriously disappeared. We might not have heard the last of this. Such honesty will not have endeared her to him and his supporters.

None of this automatically disqualifies her from leading the party. In fact, much of it suggests that she might be the best option to prevent a lurch to the hard right post-election. But it does bring into question whether she would be quite the consensus candidate that is claimed. Specifically, enthusiasm on the right for her leadership might not last beyond Sunak’s defenestration. There may be some right-wing MPs who are in the “Anyone but Sunak” camp, but if he went, many others on the right might look elsewhere for their political saviour, resulting in – at best – a messy transfer of power.

Even in the unlikely event that the party unified around Mordaunt – or anyone else – the emergence of a fourth Tory prime minister during one parliament would surely be too much for the public. A general election campaign would quickly follow. Even if the public took to the new prime minister, they could have little confidence that she or he would be around for long even if the Tories were re-elected. Nor would the fundamentals of most people’s lives, such as the cost of living or the state of public services, be transformed. The Conservatives would just look self-obsessed.

Sunak is a flawed politician who is leading his party to defeat. But, at this point and in these circumstances, removing him would make a very bad situation even worse.

[See also: The revenge of Sue Gray]

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