View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

Rishi Sunak is already irrelevant

The Conservatives are demoralised. Among Tory MPs, all eyes are on their party’s future.

By Rachel Cunliffe

There’s a new social quirk that’s taking over Westminster. Speak to any Tory MP about the future and you’ll end up engaged in a strange verbal dance: “Obviously you’re hoping you won’t lose the election, but if you do end up in opposition, do you think…” To which they reply: “Of course, I still believe we can win the election, but if we don’t, I think…”

They don’t believe that, of course, but convention dictates everyone must smile politely and briefly contemplate the possibility that all might not be quite as badly lost as it clearly is before the conversation can continue. Since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, the polls have gone from almost hopeful to bad, worse and even more disastrous. At the start of March, support for the Tories fell to its lowest level on record. Attempts to “move the dial” succeed only in the wrong direction. In the Autumn Statement in November, Jeremy Hunt cut National Insurance by 2p and was rewarded with the polling equivalent of two fingers. The Chancellor tried the exact same trick in the 6 March Budget to exactly the same effect.

The government is stuck in a holding pattern. Ministers are going through all the motions of running the country – giving statements to the Commons, appearing on the broadcast round – but you can tell their hearts aren’t in it. At the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, the Conservative benches are visibly disengaged, roused only when Sunak brings up Keir Starmer’s past support of Jeremy Corbyn before slumping back into a disgruntled stupor. Their minds – along with their energy – are elsewhere.

This inertia was on full display at the gala dinner hosted by think tank the Centre for Policy Studies for its 50th anniversary on 6 March. Fresh from Budget day, hundreds of Conservative MPs, donors and party insiders poured into the Guildhall for a dinner at which Sunak himself was the guest of honour. The atmosphere in the room was cheerful – until the PM got up to speak, at which point any buzz evaporated. I spotted a cabinet minister fiddling with his phone as Sunak recited a speech that could have been produced by ChatGPT. Perhaps he was dealing with some urgent national crisis, I thought, until he put his phone away and started whispering conspiratorially to his neighbour, who laughed. Sunak’s whole performance had, as a former spad put it afterwards, “supply teacher energy”. And this with an audience of friends.

The centre of gravity is not strong enough to keep the party together. Far from rallying around their embattled leader, MPs are drifting away – some as loudly and disruptively as possible. On 11 March Lee Anderson, the former deputy party chairman, announced with glee that he was defecting to Reform. The move was hardly a surprise – Anderson had been suspended from the Conservative Party two weeks earlier for comments suggesting the London mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by “Islamists” – but it blazes a trail for other MPs on the Tory right who are angry and desperate about their seats.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Others are already preparing for the post-defeat battle. The Tory response to the Budget was far more muted than usual – not just in the shrug of lukewarm support from Sunak allies but in the absence of fiery condemnation from the right of the party. In fact, they seemed remarkably calm about not getting the tax cuts they’ve agitated for. It is almost as if they know it no longer matters and are focusing on what might.

As well as the shadow leadership campaigns under way (Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Suella Braverman and James Cleverly are all in the mix), a flurry of existing groups and new initiatives are hoping to pull the Conservative Party in various directions after the election. There’s Liz Truss and her Popular Conservatives (now minus Anderson, who spoke at the launch) attempting to blend Reform-style populism with free-market economics. There’s the New Social Covenant Unit headed by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, which aims to maintain the agenda of the New Conservatives (small-c conservative values, promoting a traditional view of family and community), even after Cates most likely loses her seat. There’s the Next Generation Centre, unveiled last month by the Adam Smith Institute, which is urgently trying to wake up the party to the existential risk of abandoning generations of young people. (Treasury minister Bim Afolami spoke at the launch; alas, his enthusiasm for addressing intergenerational inequality failed to make it into the Budget.)

Then there are veterans such as John Hayes, who told me voters would flock back to the Tories if they offered “full-fat Conservatism”, and the pollster Lord Ashcroft, who claims to have read the runes from focus groups and and writes a weekly ConservativeHome column on what might save the party. And finally there’s the One Nation group of moderates, working behind the scenes on the calculation that electoral maths will give them the advantage when the party regroups after the election.

Representatives from all these many corners were there at the Guildhall dinner, fidgeting like bored schoolchildren as their leader tried and failed to command the attention of the room. They have little in common in terms of background, ideology or strategy. Ask them what they make of Anderson’s defection and you’ll get a full range of responses, some four letters long. What unites them is that they are keeping their eye squarely on the future. The next election isn’t even worth discussing, except as a metaphorical throat-clearing exercise. Sunak, despised by some, admired but pitied by others, is already an irrelevance.

[See also: How dangerous is Lee Anderson’s defection for the Tories?]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU