A mere six weeks ago, as Rishi Sunak was marking his first anniversary as prime minister, rumours were swirling that letters of no confidence were starting to be submitted by disgruntled Tory MPs.
It wasn’t much of a threat – “bored MPs trying to make themselves seem important and look like they have a plan” was the assessment of one Sunak loyalist to me. But the boredom – or perhaps more accurately, the disquiet – among Conservative backbenchers was worth noticing nonetheless. Following a disappointing party conference and two catastrophic by-election defeats, MPs were running out of patience. Both the moderate One Nation caucus and the different factions associated with the Tory right were fed-up: with the polls, with the frequent shifts in strategy, and with the lack of any kind of coherent plan from the Prime Minister to avert electoral oblivion.
What kept the letters to a trickle back then was the political reality: there was no potential leadership challenger who could unite the fractured party or who looked capable of reversing the Conservatives’ downward trajectory with an election on the horizon. But that stalemate created its own challenges for the Prime Minister. As I wrote at the time: “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.”
The Rwanda fiasco perfectly encapsulates this dilemma. As David Gauke has pointed out, what began as an attempt to solve the serious problem of illegal immigration has morphed into something else: an issue of totemic, perhaps even existential significance that has forced Sunak towards disapplying both domestic and international legislation in the name of sovereignty. This ideological purity test has become the new Brexit, offering up a cause for which MPs seeking to burnish their leadership credentials (first Suella Braverman and now Robert Jenrick, who has resigned as immigration minister) can martyr themselves to prove their commitment.
It has also nudged Sunak into a nightmarish venn diagram. To please the Braverman-backers (those who will allow themselves to be pleased after he sacked her, that is) requires the Rwanda bill to take the most robust position possible, disregarding the judgement of the Supreme Court and skirting round the whole pesky role of the courts as much as possible. (Parliament should be sovereign, the argument goes.) But many One Nation Conservatives are quite attached to the whole rule of law idea and don’t fancy putting their names to legislation that would essentially signal that the Tories, the erstwhile party of law and order, don’t care about breaking international commitments. Finding a sliver of crossover between the two, a bill that doesn’t stick two fingers up to the courts but still ensures at least one symbolic plane takes off for Rwanda before the election, is virtually impossible.
Prime ministers do sometimes manage to achieve seemingly impossible things (look, for example, at Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal fudge, whose contradictions were obscured long enough to win him a landslide victory). And there probably is some Rwanda compromise, some meticulously careful wording, that would enable Sunak to navigate this Scylla and Charybdis moment in other circumstances.
The current circumstances, however, are as follows. The polls are dismal and getting worse. The Tories are more unpopular now among 2019 Conservative voters than they were during the Liz Truss debacle. Sunak’s own personal ratings (which at the start of the year were significantly higher than his party’s) have plummeted; he is now almost as unpopular a leader as Jeremy Corbyn was just before the 2019 election. Facing mounting challenges, he has a tendency not to rise to the occasion, but to retreat into tetchiness. Announcing his Rwanda Bill at a press conference today, the Prime Minister came across as sulky and defensive, glaring at journalists and offering snapped, irritated answers. (See also: cancelling a meeting with the prime minister of Greece out of petulance.) There are increasing concerns from Tory MPs across the political spectrum that in a bitter election campaign Sunak might lose it completely. (“Tantrum” and “meltdown” are the kind of words being used.)
Whatever patience and goodwill he enjoyed on becoming Prime Minister is long gone. The stalemate continues: there still isn’t an obvious front runner or an alternative plan to rescue the election, and the MPs who are fed-up with Sunak span the entire party. They could no more easily agree on a successor than he can find a Rwanda compromise capable of pleasing everyone. But lack of action should not be mistaken for lack of pressure – and the pressure is mounting. As Ernest Hemingway said of going bankrupt, there are two ways to lose your leadership: gradually then suddenly.
Or, as one Tory aide put it to me: “Don’t ever underestimate the party’s willingness to kill the current leadership with no clear alternative.”