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25 October 2022

Can Rishi Sunak escape the Tories’ death cult?

The Prime Minister has inherited the same problems that undermined the last three Conservative leaders.

By Charlotte Ivers

Conservative MPs are smiling. I mention this because it feels rare enough to be remarkable. “It’s nice. It’s just really nice,” one beaming moderate MP told me yesterday (24 October). The belated arrival of Rishi Sunak has briefly united his warring party and there is a pervading sense that “the grown-ups are back in the room”.

We have come a long way. “Truss is the latest victim of a never-ending Tory death cult,” declared the Sunday Times only ten days ago. Now, in public at least, the Conservative Party looks more like a church of tambourine-wielding evangelicals. Sunak didn’t just secure the backing of his natural ideological bedfellows but of key figures on the party’s right, such as the very recently sacked home secretary Suella Braverman and “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker. The level of unity the new PM has managed to wring from his warring party, securing nominations from more than half of the Tories’ 357 MPs, would have seemed impossible until very recently. 

And yet the party that Sunak inherits still contains the same structural problems that made it ungovernable for Liz Truss, and indeed the two prime ministers before her. The problem with death cults is that they are always looking for the next sacrifice.

For weeks now, the cult has been at war with itself. Those scars will not disappear overnight. There remains a significant minority of the parliamentary Conservative Party that viscerally dislikes Sunak. They view him as too willing to tax and spend and cannot forgive his role in the downfall of the one true messiah, Boris Johnson. Over the summer, one MP predicted that a Sunak premiership would be incredibly fractious: “We’ve never had a leader start with such a high proportion of the party hating him.” The past few weeks have been a bruising experience. Some of Truss’s ministers feel they have been treated unacceptably by some of Sunak’s proxies. “Everyone got more polarised and said more outrageous things about colleagues,” one senior Tory told me last night. “That will all be chucked back at them now.”

Sunak’s problems go beyond the personal. He inherits the economic problems that Truss faced, and indeed exacerbated. We saw an early indicator of the skirmishes to come yesterday, when members of the eurosceptic European Research Group expressed concern that Sunak would not commit to increasing UK defence spending from 2 per cent to 3 per cent of GDP.

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The return of austerity has MPs spooked. Many in marginal seats were elected in the era of Johnsonian “cakeism” and easy money. They have promised their constituents new roads, schools and hospitals which now feel like a pipe dream.

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For any budget that Sunak tries to cut, there will be a caucus of MPs ready to defend it. Truss faced an internal uproar over her refusal to promise to raise benefits in line with inflation. Truss is gone, but the dissent remains. And if Sunak decides he needs to raise taxes? Expect war.

Sunak has won plaudits from MPs for promising to appoint a cabinet that reflects the ideological diversity of the Conservative Party. But this could bring problems. Sunak will require consent from his cabinet to introduce controversial policy changes. An ideologically diverse range of ministers will make it harder to move quickly. Expect anonymous briefings against him.

All this is not to say that Sunak is doomed. He has one major advantage that Truss did not. His MPs are, for now at least, desperate to make his premiership work. “We can’t turn around to the electorate again and say, ‘Oh I’m sorry, we got it wrong the last three times, but I promise you this one is a good one,’’’ one MP told me. Tory MPs know that if they are to win the next election, or more likely to lose it with dignity, then Sunak must succeed. He will be given more leeway than Truss could have dreamed of.

To secure this leniency, however, Sunak will need to start quickly. He’ll have to prove hard and early that he has the capacity to turn things around if he is to change his party’s psyche. At present, many Tory MPs view the next election as a done and doomed deal. “The whole reason the Conservative Party succeeds is because we want to win,” a minister told me. “But now we have given up wanting to win.” Tory MPs will only rally behind Sunak if they regain the desire to win. For them to do so, he will need to show them that winning is possible. Otherwise, the Prime Minister will find himself at the helm of a death cult that has nothing left to live for – which is a death cult at its most dangerous.

[See also: Rishi Sunak deserves not to be defined by his race – like everyone else]

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