Last year was a bad one for the right of the Conservatives. Despite its dominance of the parliamentary party and, to an even greater extent, the party membership, it managed to lose not one but two leaders it had endorsed and ended up with someone – Rishi Sunak – it distrusts. The Prime Minister’s concern must be that 2023 may be the year in which the right strikes back.
There are broadly three tribes within the Conservative Party. There are the right-wing populists – keen to focus on crime and immigration, and to extend the Conservatives’ appeal to working-class voters in northern England and the Midlands. The second group is also on the right – those who would describe themselves as “free marketeers” or “Thatcherites”, even as they favour increasing trade barriers with our largest market or abandoning the fiscal conservatism that characterised Margaret Thatcher’s governments. And then there are the pragmatists, not necessarily centrists but more managerial in outlook, focused on keeping the ship of state “afloat on an even keel” (as Michael Oakeshott wrote).
Each of these tribes has taken it in turn to lead the Tories in recent months. Boris Johnson represented the populists (even if his policy vagueness and inconsistency makes him hard to pin down ideologically) but lost the confidence of his colleagues (especially the pragmatists) and was forced out. The populists lacked a vaguely credible candidate to be his successor, so eventually rallied around the supposedly Thatcherite Liz Truss. She was both a continuity candidate, because loyal to Johnson, but was also elected to bring some free-market clarity to 10 Downing Street. As it turned out, all she brought was chaos.
Sunak had warned that this might happen and he was vindicated. It was obvious that, after weeks of market turmoil, financial credibility was essential. A protracted leadership race was inconceivable and the less involvement party members had the better. All of these factors led towards the former chancellor succeeding. The pragmatists (who traditionally split multiple ways) rallied behind him.
Even then, Sunak required a stroke of luck. Like a latter-day Cincinnatus summoned from his plough, Johnson returned from his holiday in the Dominican Republic and worked the phones. He may have resigned three months earlier in what most people considered to be disgrace, but that is not how Johnson saw it; nor did the more than 100 of his parliamentary colleagues who nominated him. He had the support to stand (remarkably, his claims that he had the numbers turned out to be true) but withdrew on the eve of nominations closing.
Why he bowed out is a source of speculation. Perhaps he feared that the forthcoming Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he deliberately misled parliament would be too damaging for him as a serving prime minister; perhaps he was concerned that he would not be able to fill ministerial positions adequately; cynics suggested that a defeat would make him a less marketable figure on the speaking circuit (where he has already earned £1m); some credulous supporters even floated the idea that he was acting in the national interest. Whatever the reason, Johnson had filled the space that any challenger to Sunak needed. With Johnson out, it was to be a coronation.
Sunak was fortunate. In normal circumstances – when placating the markets is not so much of a priority, when there is time for MPs to coalesce around an alternative candidate, when the membership gets a say – a candidate such as Sunak (even with his support for Brexit and Thatcherite economic instincts) would surely struggle to win.
Both the Prime Minister and his internal critics know this. Sunak is nervous of upsetting the right. He treads carefully on Europe, quickly dismissing talk of agreeing a “Swiss-style” deal on single market access. He spends much time wrangling with the issue of small-boat Channel crossings – electorally important no doubt, and an obsession on the right of British politics, but not the country’s biggest problem. He even found himself on the wrong side of one argument when he assumed that the right-wing position was to oppose onshore wind farms only to find Johnson and Truss supporting them.
Sunak is, by nature, a minister who wants to concentrate on the details, believing that many problems can be solved by understanding the data, dispassionately evaluating the options, reaching sensible conclusions and focusing on delivery. This is a refreshing contrast to Johnson but it also means that there are complaints that the Prime Minister has no big vision. Trying to reconcile Sunak’s technocratic instincts with the determinedly populist tendencies of his backbenchers risks satisfying no one. If he offers a vision that departs too far from the views of the right, this will provoke division. If he simply regurgitates a right-wing vision he will sound inauthentic.
Sunak can argue that his willingness to raise taxes to their highest level since the Second World War – an unpopular move with many of his parliamentary colleagues – was essential in calming the markets. He has to pick and choose his fights carefully and the fight for fiscal credibility was the most important. He is right and he deserves credit for calming the markets, but the Prime Minister will get little gratitude from supporters of Truss for sorting out the mess that she created. Instead, some Tory MPs will go around muttering about higher taxes and the betrayal of Conservative values.
Matters are not helped by the opinion poll ratings. These are better for the Tories than they were under Truss but still worse than under Johnson, even in the worst days of the partygate scandal – Labour now leads the Conservatives by around 20 points, compared with seven before Johnson’s resignation.
Sunak’s supporters can argue that the Prime Minister comfortably outpolls his party, that economic conditions have deteriorated substantially since Johnson was in office, and that the damage inflicted on the Conservative Party brand by the Truss debacle will take, at best, many months to recover. All of this is true, but it will not satisfy those who are disgruntled.
This is not to say that the Conservative Party is about to break out into open rebellion. By and large, the psychodrama of the last few months has left Tory MPs exhausted, especially given that many of them have been appointed to and/or sacked/resigned from ministerial office multiple times since July. This must be profoundly draining.
By the time we get to May, however, with the local elections out of the way, there is a risk there will be sufficient energy for another burst of Tory infighting.
The worst-case scenario for Sunak is a full-blown attempt at removing him, although according to the rules of the back-bench 1922 Committee he is immune from facing a no-confidence vote in his first 12 months as leader. Recent history shows that there are other means of removing a Tory leader, such as a mass resignation of ministers. This looks very unlikely given that the ministerial ranks are filled with pragmatists who sincerely believe that Sunak is the best person for the job.
The risks for Rishi Sunak come from the backbenchers. Truss is reported to be unrepentant and will presumably become still more vocal on the importance of economic growth as the UK falls deeper into recession. There is talk of a new free-market think tank, there being an obvious dearth at present. Whether many will find her vision for growth particularly convincing is another matter, but within the Tory party the argument that higher taxes results in lower growth will resonate.
A bigger worry will be those who are close to Johnson. Jake Berry, the former Conservative chairman who has already caused Sunak no end of trouble, has stated that it was “insanity” to remove Johnson from office, while Nadine Dorries is writing a book – reported to be provisionally titled The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson – that will be critical of those who brought her hero down. The former home secretary Priti Patel and the Tory donor Peter Cruddas have launched the Conservative Democratic Organisation in a bid to strengthen the power of the party’s grass-roots – one could call this Tory Bennism.
The new group could quickly turn itself into a movement to restore Johnson to the leadership. Johnson himself is earning good money and sits for a constituency (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) that is likely to vote Labour in 2024, but nothing he has done suggests that his thirst for high office is sated. If he survives the Privileges Committee investigation, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that he will mount a new bid. Johnson, however, may not survive the investigation, which could lead to his suspension from parliament and a potential by-election if any recall petition succeeds.
The former prime minister may also decide that his time has passed. But even if he does, this will create political space that was unavailable to other right-wing candidates last October. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, is hungry for advancement. She may have been marginalised within the cabinet over the small-boat policy, but she openly claims that the country has not done enough to protect its borders and that the government should be judged on its performance on the issue. That is not a helpful intervention – it is a gift to Nigel Farage – and nor is it meant to be.
The growing talk that Farage is going to re-enter politics will worry Tory MPs, especially in the Red Wall areas. A few might even defect to Reform UK (the successor to the Brexit Party), although there is probably little chance of any of them being re-elected for a Faragiste party. The threat, however, of Farage taking 5-10 per cent off the Conservative vote is a real one given that the Tories decided to focus on winning over ex-Ukip voters in 2019. In the past, Farage took votes off both main parties but that would not be the case in 2024. On that basis, the Conservative right is correct to say that the Tories cannot afford to give Farage space at the next general election.
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If Sunak’s supporters in the parliamentary party are worried about their fellow MPs and their populist voters, they are also conscious of the party members. They may have been successfully excluded from October’s leadership race but they can make their influence felt in other ways. Boundary changes mean that there will be cases of several Tory MPs competing for one parliamentary selection. Pragmatists will be at a disadvantage. Even where no such contest is needed, MPs worry that Sunak loyalists (or, perhaps, Johnson-sceptics) will have an uncomfortable time being readopted as candidates.
Some will try to complete this process early, before disenchantment grows. Others might decide to announce pre-emptively their departure (as 13 Tory MPs have to date). As for new candidates being selected in winnable seats, it is too early to reach any conclusions, but the likelihood must be that most constituencies will choose people who reflect the hard-line views of Tory members.
The balance of power within the Conservative Party continues to lean heavily to the right, despite the failures of Johnson and Truss in 2022. Rather than heralding a return to the traditional political centre ground, the emergence of Rishi Sunak as leader may come to resemble an aberration. There is every chance that 2023 will be the year in which the populist right reasserts itself within the Conservative Party.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege