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25 January 2023

Sunak is finding Tory MPs ungovernable

The party has forced its latest victim of a prime minister into a succession of U-turns.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak told his MPs to “unite or die” when he took office. It was a forbidding statement, intended, you would assume, as a shot across the bows to the many would-be Conservative rebels who might defy him. It has become painfully clear to the Prime Minister that his warning has been filed under “ignore”. Those who applauded Sunak’s ascension to the top job have since forced him into U-turns on housing targets, wind farms, online safety regulations and much else.

There is a strong argument for the PM to sack the party chairman Nadhim Zahawi over his tax affairs scandal. But Sunak, after asking his ethics chief to investigate the matter, might reasonably have expected his own MPs to toe the line for longer than 48 hours. Instead, no fewer than four former cabinet ministers are among those telling journalists about his “car crash” decision to keep Zahawi in post for now. 

It’s nothing personal against Sunak. The Conservatives are addicted to rinsing all authority from their leaders, regardless of which unfortunate soul happens to be occupying No 10. The party is ungovernable.

It was not always the case. In past eras, including David Cameron’s, the Conservatives had a reputation for ruthless loyalty. The blood and thunder of the Brexit wars, perhaps coupled with the sugar high of facing a Labour leader as unpopular as Jeremy Corbyn, has left them incapable of remaining disciplined. Combine that with an economy that is stuck in a rut and what’s left is a toxic mix.

Despite having an 80-seat (!) majority, Boris Johnson struggled to legislate because factions were frequently squaring up to one another. High-speed rail, foie gras, emergency visas, badger culling, workers’ rights, housing, free school meals… it would be easier to list measures his government was not forced to retreat on. The Mirror counted 50 U-turns – the Guardian’s politics team curated a top ten if you don’t have all day.

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And now the Prime Minister is exposed to more party splits, not fewer: Johnson-backers ready to pounce; Brexiteers watching the Northern Ireland protocol row; Trussites craving tax cuts; Red Wall MPs looking for spending so they can defend their seats; one-nationers resistant to the prospect of fighting culture wars (while others relish it). Each group will doubtless march straight into the trenches if they don’t get what they want.

If Sunak won another 80-seat majority for the Tories, is there any evidence the internecine warfare would end? Not yet.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Why Labour thinks it has solved the Brexit conundrum]

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