New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak only has himself to blame for his humiliation

The Prime Minister had no need to make the Rwanda plan a defining test of his leadership.

By Lewis Goodall

We are in the Rishi Sunak endgame. We’ve probably been in it since the moment he assumed the premiership. Such was the political damage done to the Conservative Party’s reputation for honesty by Boris Johnson, and its reputation for competence by Liz Truss, that little could have been done to arrest its decline. But Sunak’s own particular political ineptness has accelerated the process.

He promised to end the chaos. He came with the sheen of stability. Yet his maladroit politics, coupled with an ideologically riven Conservative Party, mean he has not become the prime minister of order he wanted to be. The resignation of the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick – an erstwhile ally – is devastating, but Sunak brought it upon himself.

The Prime Minister’s fingerprints are all over his government. His reshuffle was botched, elevating has-beens over up-and-comers. The net result was to leave ambitious figures such as Jenrick with little short-term incentive to stay, and every long-term incentive to leave. It’s a calculation Sunak himself made when he resigned as chancellor under Boris Johnson. Suella Braverman was sacked as home secretary, as she ought to have been, but Sunak failed to maintain the balance by including other figures from the party’s right – gifting Braverman a back-bench army to lead. The David Cameron restoration was good for a day’s headlines, but little else.

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

The scale of Sunak’s political failure is far deeper, far greater than one foolish reshuffle. He may well meet his political end over the largely unworkable plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda – a policy he inherited and had no need to implement, still less to make it a hallmark of Tory virility. In so doing he has helped reanimate some of the forces of the Brexit debate that nearly destroyed the Tory party. To listen to talk of star chambers, impromptu press conferences, emergency legislation and confidence motions is to be transported back to the dog days of the Theresa May premiership. At the heart of the Conservatives’ psychological torment in recent years has been an intractable division over sovereignty: what it means, and whether it can or should be shared. The Rwanda policy has, unwittingly, become the latest and biggest example of that conflict.

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Only a few months ago it was received wisdom in Westminster that Sunak couldn’t lose over the Rwanda plan. If he managed, by some miracle, to get the legislation through the courts and flights off the ground before the election, he would be a folk hero on the right. If he failed, so the argument went, he could run against the institutions of the British state and, in particular, the judiciary. This was always a typical, too-clever-by-half Westminster analysis. To propose something you know will likely fail would only ever have been a reminder of impotence, of powerlessness. A government of 13 years trying to run against the state is hollow, and one that Sunak is especially ill-suited to prosecute.

The Conservative Party is now ungovernable. It would take a political titan to unite it, and Sunak isn’t that. The chances of another leadership contest are shortening. At this point the calculus is shifting towards the question of what the party has to lose. If Sunak is replaced it will be from the right, a more moderate figure has no alternative prospectus or approach. The perceived failure of the Sunak “moderate” wing of the party will echo beyond Conservative Party Headquarters. It’s a deeply embedded element of the British political/media system that a Labour leader must face down their extreme wing in order to establish respectability, whereas a Conservative one can, and often must, be seen to embrace theirs to achieve political credibility. 

That imbalance tips the scale of British politics, making it inherently unstable. A Braverman-style candidate, who is as far to the right as Jeremy Corbyn was to the left, could easily become Tory leader and prime minister and be accepted by the media in a way their Labour equivalent never would be. 

Sunak’s failure; the Conservative Party’s slow, and then rapid decline; its ideological radicalisation, mirrored across Europe’s centre right – it all matters. And to all of us.

Watch: Andrew Marr on how Rishi Sunak has failed to change the Conservative’s direction this year

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