How serious is Rishi Sunak’s campaign for the top job? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has set tongues wagging with his star turn in front of backbench Tory MPs – The Times Steve Swinford has a good run-through of the gathering – which, coming on the back of a series of highly rated backroom hires, have some people speculating that Sunak’s main priority is easing his way to 10 Downing Street.
The reality is that in modern British politics, once you are Chancellor of the Exchequer, the only upward move is to become the Prime Minister. The role of the Foreign Secretary is not what it once was, though; for different reasons, David Miliband, William Hague, Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab all had a political stature that did not directly relate to the powers of the post itself. So, anyone in the Treasury, unless they are of an age where their next job is “retirement”, will have half an eye on the job next door.
But Sunak is actually just building on the machinery he inherited from Sajid Javid. While Boris Johnson’s Downing Street puts very little time and energy into communicating with MPs — which is why there have been so many big rebellions — the Treasury does. Conservative MPs, they will often privately complain that they have little idea of the direction of government and worry that there is no serious hand at the tiller. But they will also praise the Chancellor for taking the time to talk to them. That last part isn’t new: it’s just the discontent with Downing Street that has changed.
That’s hugely sensible, because the majority of 86 is not that large. You only need 43 Conservative MPs to vote against the government: not that big a number. More importantly, the lack of care and attention to the parliamentary party is why majorities of 20 or so have become fairly commonplace: over Huawei, over the new voting system, with bigger rows over the quarantine and social distancing guidelines all looming.
Some people at the top of the party have allowed themselves to believe the 2019 victory was bigger than it was in terms of parliament. It was a landslide defeat for Labour, but not one which produced a landslide majority for the Conservatives: rather like 2005, when Labour won a majority of similar size. If MPs aren’t listened to, defeats could become fairly regular. It’s not leadership positioning, but sensible politics, for Sunak to take soundings among MPs.
Of course, though, simply “doing his job in a sensible way” is pretty much the best way for Sunak to run for the party leadership right now. The biggest doubts about Boris Johnson within the parliamentary party are all about the conduct of his leadership, from those who think they will never hold ministerial office under him, to those who fear he lacks the competence to navigate the way out of lockdown or to tackle the coronavirus.
The most effective way, at the moment, for anyone to put a marker down in the Conservative leadership race is simply to show that they are capable of a degree of competence and engagement with the parliamentary party.