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6 November 2023

Rishi Sunak’s biggest weakness is his own side

Try as he might, the Prime Minister simply cannot move on from the party’s recent past.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak cannot escape the past. The Sunday papers were filled with speculation that the Covid inquiry has botched the Prime Minister’s attempts to shift the Tories’ reputation away from partygate and Liz Truss. The Sunday Times reports that Isaac Levido – the strategist behind the Conservatives’ 2019 election triumph – is torn between deploying Boris Johnson in the Red Wall at the next election and keeping him in the background. The graphic revelations from the inquiry last week have been compounded by extracts from Nadine Dorries’s new book detailing the alleged campaign to unseat Johnson when he was prime minister.

At the same time, Sunak’s parliamentary majority is shrinking. Bob Stewart MP has resigned the whip following a conviction for a racially aggravated public order offence. Last month, Peter Bone lost the whip after a report found he committed sexual misconduct. Two weeks ago, Crispin Blunt said he had been arrested for rape – the eighth Conservative to have had the whip removed over sexual misconduct allegations this parliament.

This is the context in which Sunak heads into six days of parliamentary debate on tomorrow’s King’s Speech. His party is riven with division and scandal. No 10 hope this speech will reframe the political narrative by laying out the Conservatives’ legislative path to the next election. Expect measures on crime (increasing sentences while shipping criminals to prisons abroad), energy (boosting North Sea production with annual oil and gas licensing rounds) and a ban on smoking for future generations.

This King’s Speech aims to throw the party’s differences with Labour into sharp relief. But Sunak must worry about his own backbenchers’ response. Some Conservative MPs have been calling for a slower path towards net zero for a while, but the onshore wind-farm revolt last November (which included Johnson and Truss) gives No 10 reason to be wary over the energy measures. The libertarians in the party are poised to oppose the smoking ban. The landlords are irritated by plans to ban no-fault evictions. The speech will reveal the lines of attack No 10 will deploy over the next year. But Sunak’s key problem remains his own side.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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[See also: We still can’t escape Covid]

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