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25 April 2024

The Tories are facing a moment of great peril

Rishi Sunak may gamble on a summer general election if he fears being removed by Tory MPs.

By David Gauke

On Friday 3 May, Rishi Sunak will enter the danger zone. The local election results will be in and they will be, in all probability, ghastly. For those Tory MPs who want to remove him, this is their moment. They might not get a second chance.

Sunak’s team evidently recognise this. It is no coincidence that the last few days have seen a flurry of activity. One criticism often made about the Prime Minister is that he is too passive, that he fails to set the agenda. In recent days, however, we have had the parliamentary vote on the smoking ban, new policies on welfare reform, the passing of the Rwanda bill and the announcement of higher defence spending. He is getting stuff done.

In some of these cases, Sunak is taking a political risk. The smoking ban, for example, irritates his libertarian parliamentary colleagues, but polls well with the country as a whole. In other cases, there is more spin than substance. The ambition of increasing defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP is just that – an ambition. It will cost in the region of £17bn a year and no credible plans have been set out as to how to pay for it. (In fairness, a similar point can be made about Labour’s policy on defence spending.) It is one for the next spending review, which conveniently falls on the other side of the general election.

On Rwanda, the headlines have been about the government finally getting its bill passed. In reality, the prospect of the completion of the bill was a source of anxiety rather than celebration for ministers. Once enacted, the question would always become why no flights had taken off. Sunak used his statement earlier this week – presented as him getting tough with the House of Lords – to let it be known that no flights would depart until well into the summer. Expectations are being managed.

But the Rwanda policy is still a political accident waiting to happen. Assuming the flights happen, the first deportations will not occur until the height of summer when crossings are usually at their peak. Those arriving in small boats will probably far outnumber those migrants being flown to Rwanda. If so, the deterrence argument will appear far from persuasive. A focus on small boats and a conspicuous failure to stop them might be all that is needed for Reform UK to overtake the Tories in the opinion polls.

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But, just for the moment, the important point is that this is not going to be a policy that will unravel in the first few weeks of May. Survival during this period is the prime objective.

A period of hyperactivity and the deferral of problems over Rwanda might be enough to dissuade panicked Tory MPs from triggering a confidence vote. But with electoral defeat under Sunak inevitable, MPs might be tempted to roll the dice and try someone else.

There are two very strong arguments against a change of leader. (At least, I think they are strong, having made the arguments myself.) The first is that, even if matters go smoothly, a fourth prime minister in two years is absurd. Second, matters will not go smoothly. A chaotic leadership contest will drive away what is left of the Tory support.

It is, therefore, in Sunak’s interests to ensure that there is little prospect of a straightforward transition to a new leader. If MPs believe that the Prime Minister might go quietly and that a majority of the parliamentary party might rally around one candidate – thus enabling the party members to be excluded from the process – Sunak is at risk.

The second condition – that a majority of Tory MPs might fall in behind one candidate – might just be met, although I am sceptical. That one candidate would be Penny Mordaunt. Many MPs believe she has a campaign team ready to go and that, if a vacancy emerged, she would quickly have momentum. Alternative candidates would be under great pressure to stand aside.

The big question, therefore, is whether Sunak would go quietly. I suspect that, over the next few days, those around him will be briefing of his new-found enjoyment of the job and determination to dig in.

The other point we may hear more of is that – if there is a prospect of a confidence vote – he would be willing to go straight to the country. Rather than face a vote of confidence from MPs, he would choose a vote from the public.

There was speculation that Boris Johnson might consider such a move in 2022. At that time, less than halfway through a five-year parliament, it was suggested that the cabinet secretary (the most senior civil servant) and Buckingham Palace would have intervened to prevent this move. The Lascelles principles would have come into operation, constraining a prime minister’s discretion to dissolve the Commons. At this much later stage of the parliament, those around Sunak are confident that such a constraint would not apply. He has the power.

Would he do it? A general election called in the wake of disastrous local elections by an unpopular prime minister fearing the sack from his own party would be an extraordinarily unpropitious set of circumstances in which to seek re-election. But he would have little to lose.

Not just Sunak but the Conservative Party as a whole may be very close to a moment of great peril.

[See also: Germany’s delusional China strategy]

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