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25 October 2022

Can Rishi Sunak possibly unite the Conservative Party?

Party divisions will open once more when the meaning of renewed austerity becomes clear.

By Freddie Hayward

If Rishi Sunak wants to survive for longer as prime minister than his predecessor, he must now unite the Conservative Party. That could prove difficult for the former chancellor. He inherits a fractious party and the government’s immediate task remains the divisive job of raising enough money to fill the fiscal gap left by Liz Truss’s mini-Budget. That means that in the coming weeks Sunak’s government will likely have to impose tax rises and spending cuts, which will be deeply unpopular with Tory MPs.

There are positive signs for Sunak. Tory backbenchers were bursting with enthusiasm after he gave his victory speech to the 1922 Committee meeting this afternoon. He’s attracted support from both the right and the left of the party. Backers of Boris Johnson, such as the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and the European Research Group (ERG) favourite Suella Braverman, endorsed him before his victory was declared. The Brexiteers of the ERG and the One Nation grouping of more centrist MPs have both promised to support him.

That unity may not last long if his policies prove unpopular, however. Truss faced a significant rebellion over plans not to raise benefits in line with inflation; will Sunak attempt the same? If not, then does he intend to keep the “triple lock” that means state pensions rise with average earnings, inflation, or by 2 per cent, whichever is higher? Which department budgets will he cut? Will he scrap plans to raise defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP and risk the resignation of Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary? The trigger for Truss’s resignation was a smart parliamentary move by Labour that forced Conservatives to vote on the return of fracking. How will Sunak navigate similar opposition ploys to divide the party?

Tory MPs are now seasoned rebels. The chaos of last week was yet another blow to party discipline. And these tensions will only be exacerbated by the economic problems that remain. The Conservatives may now enjoy a boost in the polls – albeit from a calamitous low point – but once mortgages start to rise next year because of higher interest rates, real-terms pay falls further and the energy price guarantee expires in April, discord may return.

Ultimately, Tory MPs desperately want to avoid an early general election given the state of the polls. Few MPs will want to destabilise the government after the chaos of the past six months, particularly if Sunak appoints MPs from across the party to the cabinet. But that doesn’t mean they won’t cause problems for the new PM as the reality of renewed austerity becomes clear.

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[See also: Rishi Sunak to become prime minister after Penny Mordaunt withdraws]

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