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24 October 2023

Is Rishi Sunak’s leadership in danger?

The Prime Minister’s attempted “reset” has alienated both One Nation moderates and the Tory right.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Wednesday 25 October marks one year since Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss as Prime Minister. Unhelpfully for a man whose party has just suffered two catastrophic by-election defeats, today (24 October) – one year since he became leader of the Conservative Party – marks the end of his period of immunity.

The rules of the 1922 Committee of back-bench Conservative MPs are not public, but it is generally understood that leaders cannot be challenged in their first year, or in the year following a confidence vote should they win it.

How much this technical immunity actually helps is a matter of debate. Theresa May and Boris Johnson both won confidence votes, but were pressured by Conservative MPs into standing down within a matter of months (or, in Johnson’s case, 30 days). Truss, meanwhile, was forced to resign after only 45 days as prime minister.

But the end of Sunak’s official honeymoon period is still a turning point, and it seems to have triggered a spirit of rebellion among some of his MPs. It was reported at the weekend that letters of no confidence are already being sent to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady. According to Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, the group believes “20 to 25 letters of no confidence had either been submitted or were about to be submitted”.

So should Sunak be panicking? A confidence vote is triggered if 15 per cent of Conservative MPs submit letters indicating they want a change of leader. Following the two by-election defeats, that would require 53 letters – so even taking the reported number at face value, the rebels would appear to have less than half of what is needed. Moreover, if a flurry of letters were sent, Sunak’s leadership would then be put to a vote. After the chaotic scenes of the Johnson and Truss administrations, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which half his MPs suddenly decide to desert him, but something would have to go terribly and radically wrong first. A handful of disgruntled MPs sabre-rattling does not herald another change of PM.

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Sunak, fresh from his trip to Israel and the surrounding region last week, has other things on his mind beyond this rebellion. There is a general consensus among Tory strategists that this is a non-story – the anti-Sunak crusaders simply don’t have the numbers, so there’s little point even talking about it. One Conservative MP branded it “complete and utter balls” and attributed reports of letters sent to Brady to “bored MPs trying to make themselves seem important and look like they have a plan”.

Indeed, the lack of any plan is evident, given that the rebels don’t even represent the same wing of the party. With his uninspiring attempt at a “reset” after the summer recess, Sunak has managed to alienate both One Nation moderates and the Tory right. The Conservative conference in Manchester was an odd affair, with Truss and Nigel Farage (who is not even a Tory) both attracting enthusiastic crowds and the mood feeling decidedly disjointed. Moderates are upset by the government’s rightward turn, with ever more hard-line rhetoric on immigration and U-turns over net zero measures.

[See also: There’s now almost nothing that can save the Tories]

Free-marketeers, meanwhile, are still pressing for tax cuts that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insists will not be forthcoming in the Autumn Statement. The idea that these two factions could reach any kind of consensus over who might replace Sunak is fanciful.

Yet what they have in common is that they are fed up and uninspired. Sunak’s pitch to his party following Truss’s implosion was that he was competent enough to avert electoral apocalypse – an argument that MPs (some of them grudgingly) accepted. A year on, with Labour’s lead still as high as 20 points, the polls are almost as bad for the Tories as they were during the Truss nadir. Sunak didn’t get a post-conference poll bounce, and the by-elections have exposed the reality that even MPs with majorities of 15-20,000 are at risk of losing their seats. The faith this time last year that Sunak could revive Tory fortunes has faded.

“We need to feel there is a plan that consists of more than saying ‘our hands are tied’,” said one MP who favours tax cuts, describing reports of 20-25 letters as “plausible”. 

The letters therefore should be seen for what they are: a howl of despair from MPs who can see their party heading towards disaster and feel their leader is helpless to stop it. The fact there is little prospect of actually toppling Sunak and no obvious successor isn’t the point.

This week’s much-anticipated reshuffle now looks like it will be postponed until the new year – unsurprising, as it’s hard to see who Sunak could promote or demote without antagonising more MPs than he pleases. There is a sense of fatigue and paralysis around the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 22 November.

The party is united in applause for Sunak’s performance on the world stage during these tumultuous times, but agrees on little else. Team Sunak can take comfort from the fact Tory MPs have no appetite for yet another leadership contest this side of an election.

But after a year in the job, the Prime Minister finds himself in a bind. The more agitation there is on the backbenches, the harder it is for him to take decisive action in the hope of reversing the party’s fortunes. Yet the longer that decisive plan fails to materialise, the more the agitation will grow.

[See also: What are the Tories telling themselves today?]

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