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6 December 2023

The Tories are split into three camps and a shadow leadership contest is under way

Heading into an election year, the Conservative Party is in a dismal state – and Rishi Sunak is in panic mode.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I can’t stop thinking about the Parthenon Sculptures – or rather, what led Rishi Sunak to cancel a meeting in November with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after he raised the issue of their return. Anyone could have warned Sunak that skipping the opportunity to discuss serious geopolitical challenges with a fellow European leader was an unforced error. And the reason behind it might have something to do with a very tiny hammer. 

A few days before Sunak cancelled the meeting with Mitsotakis, a video went viral of him appearing to misuse a hammer. The full video shows a jeweller telling Sunak to use the side, but it didn’t matter. The image of an incompetent politician failing to do something as basic as holding a hammer had stuck. Like the photos of Ed Miliband attempting to eat a bacon sandwich, the video reinforced the prevailing sense that Sunak doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.

The Prime Minister had made similar gaffes before: putting petrol in a car that wasn’t his; not knowing how to make a contactless card payment; boasting on camera about diverting funds from deprived urban areas to places such as Tunbridge Wells in Kent. But Liz Truss’s calamitous premiership offered him a shot at reinvention. Anyone would appear capable in comparison. A few early wins in 2023 – such as the negotiation of the Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland – gave the impression of proficiency.

But in the second half of 2023, Sunak’s leadership has been beset with rows over immigration, public spending, polls and personnel. Multiple resets and U-turns (on net zero, HS2, Suella Braverman) have only worsened his position. Cracks have started to appear in his suave veneer; his tetchiness has shown: he has lectured a distressed mortgage-holder on LBC and snapped at journalists for asking questions. We now know Sunak panics under pressure. 

The Conservative Party ends 2023 in a dismal state. With a general election in 2024 almost inevitable (the last possible date is 28 January 2025), the polls continue to give Labour a stubborn lead of 20-25 points. Sunak is polling worse with 2019 Conservative voters than Truss, and his MPs are running out of patience. 

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There are now three broad camps inside the Tory parliamentary party. The first, the Sunak-backers, maintain that there is a narrow path to victory. Conservative governments tend to get a boost once the actual election campaign starts, I was told by a Tory strategist. Tony Blair’s Labour had a poll lead of 27 points nine months before the 1997 election; on polling day itself, this was cut to 12.5.

The flaw in this optimistic picture is that Labour still won a 179-seat majority in 1997. And if John Major wasn’t able to counter the sense that change was needed at a time when the UK economy was booming, how can Sunak possibly do so amid the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s?

This is the mindset of the second camp, who have accepted (with varying degrees of reluctance) their fate and are now focused on what happens after the election. “Opposition might be good for us” is the hopeful refrain – mostly, it must be said, from MPs who have never known how it feels to be in opposition. Others have their eye on future jobs and are using their final months in parliament to burnish their own personal legacies. They have little interest in what’s going on in Downing Street.

Then there are those agitating for something radical (and more right-wing) to stave off the impending wipeout. This is the noisiest group, consisting of MPs who never wanted Sunak as leader: disgruntled Trussites, die-hard Johnsonites, Bravermanite New Conservatives. The tax cuts announced in November’s Autumn Statement temporarily mollified them, but any credit was diminished by the record net migration figures published the next day. 

These MPs do not necessarily believe Sunak could win the next election by changing course. (A shadow leadership contest to replace him is under way: observe Suella Braverman’s departure letter, Kemi Badenoch’s focus on gender transition in schools, and James Cleverly’s sudden passion about the Rwanda plan.) But they are concerned about how badly they might lose.

Reform UK, the populist successor to the Brexit Party, is polling at around 10 per cent. Though it did not stand candidates in Tory seats in 2019, its leader, Richard Tice, told me: “The country’s never been in such a bad state… [The Tories] need punishing, they need firing, and with our help they will be.”

The trouble for Sunak is that there is little he can do to appease the right. There is no quick and easy way to reduce immigration when most arrivals to the UK either fill crucial gaps in the labour market or help fund cash-strapped universities. A Treasury man by nature, Sunak is aware of these calculations. He is also aware that the Tories backed him in October 2022 because he represented competence and stability after a period of turmoil.

Cornered creatures lash out. Leaning into the culture wars – as Sunak did, faced with Greece’s demand for the return of the sculptures – has been an effective strategy for Tory politicians trying to distract from more intractable challenges. The cancelled Mitsotakis meeting was part of a wider pattern: pressure triggering a desperate reaction. Sunak probably thought snubbing the Greek PM would make him appear authoritative, if not to the country then to his mutinying MPs. It did the opposite. He looked weak and panicked. But if you were Rishi Sunak, heading into an election year, wouldn’t you be panicking too?

[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special