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  1. The Weekend Report
29 April 2023

Sunak’s best man: can James Forsyth help save the Conservatives?

The former Spectator political editor’s arrival in No 10 has coincided with a steady Tory revival.

By Freddie Hayward

On Christmas Eve last year the Conservative Party was in despair. It was still scarred by Liz Truss‘s farcical premiership. Its new leader, Rishi Sunak, couldn’t shift Labour’s 20-point lead in the polls. He was hemmed in by rebellions from his own MPs over immigration, onshore wind farms and housebuilding. While the newspapers trailed King Charles’s first Christmas Day speech, Downing Street quietly confirmed that Sunak’s best friend, James Forsyth, would become his political secretary.

Four months on, the former political editor of the Spectator (2009-22) is repaying Sunak’s faith. The battle between Downing Street and the parliamentary party has petered out. The Tory rebels have been marginalised. Some MPs hold Forsyth responsible for the smaller-than-expected mutiny over the Windsor Framework, a turning point for Sunak. The Conservative Party is gradually eroding Labour’s poll lead. “He’s totally trusted by Rishi,” a cabinet minister remarks of Forsyth.

Their relationship is reciprocal. The two men are school friends from Winchester College, a public school in Hampshire, and godfathers to each other’s children. It was Forsyth, who’s in his early forties, who first introduced the geeky investment banker to the Conservatives and now Sunak has brought him inside as a Tory whisperer and softly spoken manager of MPs.

Forsyth is the liaison between the Prime Minister and the party in all its forms, from backbenchers to party headquarters. The political secretary’s office traditionally lies through a door at the back of the cabinet room. It adjoins the waiting room for cabinet ministers and a well-used men’s lavatory. From such a commanding viewpoint, Forsyth’s predecessors would catch cabinet ministers and MPs for off-the-record chats and manage brewing dissent.

Douglas Hurd, political secretary under Edward Heath, described the office as “a place of refuge for all kinds of visitors to No 10, particularly those who wanted a smoke or a good grumble”. Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson’s loyal political secretary, used the office to act “as an impressive and effective dragon at the gate”, according to the Labour peer Bernard Donoughue. John McTernan, Tony Blair’s political secretary from 2005-07, would spy Gerry Adams exiting the Prime Minister’s office during post-Belfast Agreement talks. “You’re right by the main thoroughfare of people going in to see the boss. And if you know the boss’s diary, which you do, you can see if there are people you want to bump into as they’re going in or coming out,” McTernan tells me.

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[See also: PMQs today: Rishi Sunak’s non-dom comment leaves the PM exposed]

These informal tête-à-têtes serve two functions. First, they allow the political secretary to gather intelligence about their charges. McTernan made sure No 10 hosted regular receptions where MPs were encouraged to bring their partners because they “will tell you what’s really going on”. Second, they allow MPs and ministers to off-load gripes to someone close to the prime minister. “You have a direct line to No 10, which is reassuring,” one Conservative MP explained.

Forsyth is “less curry and beers, less chummy than Declan Lyons [his predecessor but one] and more coffee and biscuits,” according to the MP. Before joining Downing Street, Forsyth spent more than a decade ferreting around parliament, assiduously cultivating relationships with MPs and sources as one of Westminster’s most prominent political editors. “Sharp”, “professional”, “cerebral”, “methodical”, “collegiate” are some of the words Conservative MPs use to describe him.

His “19th century manners” have brought onside those MPs repulsed by Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude towards the constitution. “James and team seem to like each other and want to succeed in contrast to the regime under Boris which was like Game of Thrones,” one Conservative MP said. “It is no accident that our end of the Commons tea room now talks about the government being afflicted by an ‘outbreak of competence’,” says a Sunak supporter.

The government has sought to quell Tory division, but one senior Trussite flinched when I suggested Forsyth had reached out to those cast aside by Sunak. “There’s been no engagement. Rishi and Jeremy [Hunt] have been open to us but there’s not been a peep from James.” Forsyth has a reputation for awkwardness. “I find him quite difficult to talk to,” one former aide said. “His response to everything is to conceptualise it and turn it into the top line of a column.”

With that said, Forsyth’s nerdy appreciation of the British political system endears him to many. A proud bunch, some Conservative MPs – such as those who opposed Boris Johnson’s prorogation in 2019 – don’t react well to the executive’s disregard for parliament. “He loves this place, he loves the institution, he loves Westminster,” one emphatically says. According to a friend, Forsyth has a particular interest in 16th- and 17th-century British constitutional history. “He’s very passionate about democracy in a kind of classical liberal sense. He’s quite American in his thinking,” they said. Indeed, Forsyth was “very emotionally distressed” at the 6 January attack on the US Capitol. The next day, in a Times column that warned against comparing Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, he worried, in a characteristically dry way, about the UK becoming “ever-more polarised”.

The conveyor belt between journalism and politics is an enduring feature of British democracy. Did a man with a reverence for democracy see any problem with blurring the lines between the media and the government it is supposed to hold to account?

“He was quite funny about that,” says a friend. “He would call it the ‘harlot’s prerogative’”. In a tirade against the press in 1931, the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin said “power without responsibility” was the “prerogative of the harlot”. Forsyth is no longer a spectator, irresponsibly gesticulating with a pen from outside: he’s in the room.

But there’s something else. Forsyth felt awkward disclosing their relationship in each podcast and article. Not doing so lay him open to accusations of evasiveness; doing so bred doubt about his journalistic integrity. His friendship with Sunak was unchangeable. Accepting Sunak’s offer to join No 10 resolved that tension. It was also his best friend asking.

[See also: Could Rishi Sunak be the Tories’ new Pitt the Younger?]

Forsyth sits in the middle of an establishment web. He was best man at Sunak’s wedding in 2009. Two years later, Sunak repaid the favour when Forsyth introduced him to a new milieu – one of baby-faced Cameroons such as Matt Hancock – at his Oxfordshire wedding as best man. Simon Hoggart, the late Guardian journalist and then-colleague of the bride, Allegra Stratton, described it as a “very grand and very jolly affair, attended by lots of famous people”.

Another guest at the wedding was Dominic Cummings. Forsyth was apparently close to the former Spectator online editor during the coalition years when he was at the Department for Education over their shared support for free schools. A lobby colleague remembers Forsyth attaching himself to the “Tory modernisers” clustered around David Cameron and George Osborne. It was at this time that Forsyth’s friendship with Sunak took a political turn. When Sunak returned from America ahead of the 2015 election on the hunt for a parliamentary seat, Forsyth introduced the future prime minister to his extensive Tory contacts, including Dougie Smith, one of the most powerful backroom fixers in the party and a speechwriter for David Cameron, according to Tory peer Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Sunak, Going For Broke.

Sunak was subsequently elected as MP for Richmond in 2015, while Forsyth continued at the Spectator. It was his wife, Stratton, who first went to work for Sunak. She joined the Treasury to run communications at the start of the pandemic before becoming Boris Johnson’s press secretary in October 2020. Her tenure ended in ignominy when a video of her joking about Partygate was released by ITV news. Stratton has since returned to the other side of the podium, writing a newsletter for Bloomberg. As a friend puts it: “They [Allegra and James] are ambitious in the sense that they always want to be near the heart of influence and power.”

Forsyth could not be closer now. A political secretary needs to inform policies as well as sell them to MPs. “If you have a group of backbenchers who could sink a deal, you need to manage the backbenchers, but you also need to manage the deal,” McTernan explains.

In February, Forsyth travelled to Belfast with the Prime Minister to sell the Windsor Framework deal to the parties in Northern Ireland. He preps his boss for key meetings. “He will call up everyone to get proper background and colour so when the PM turns up at the meeting people have a great time with him. He does the leg work.” Many decisions in No 10 don’t go through a strictly formal process. Proximity to the PM therefore enables aides to shape decisions. It gives Forsyth power. Forsyth both has and is the Prime Minister’s ear.

But power itself doesn’t explain the former Mail on Sunday columnist’s transition from journalist to éminence grise. He’s marshalling the government’s attempt to salvage the next election, “stop the boats” and all. He really believes in this. “He’s very Tory,” the friend notes. “He sees keeping Labour out as an important job.”

“He’s a party guy, he’s from the village,” says a former aide. Like that other journalist-turned-Tory Michael Gove, he separated with the Cameroons over Brexit by backing Leave. So did Sunak.

The success of both is now more entwined than ever. The next election could determine whether Forsyth’s move into politics is permanent or whether, like his wife, he reverts to journalism. His time in No 10 will almost certainly prohibit a return to reporting. But many former aides have gone on to write columns, often from the Lords.

Whether or not Forsyth extracted such a price last Christmas Eve, the deep loyalty between the two men ultimately underpins his move. He introduced Sunak to the Tory establishment; 12 years on, Sunak reciprocated. The untested Prime Minister, inheriting a divided party as a young politician without a close crop of supporters, turned to his friend. From best man to best man.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on the Brexit Bonfire Bill threatens his party’s uneasy coalition]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown