Can Rishi Sunak avoid becoming a victim of the Tory civil war?

In March Isaac Levido, the Conservative party’s campaign supremo, issued a warning about the dangers of a lack of discipline to Tory MPs gathered for a pep talk at a five-star country hotel near Windsor.

With a general election coming into view, the Australian strategist told the MPs to look around the room. “Isaac said, you may think the colleague next to you won’t be here after the election,” says one attendee. “But he said: ‘That doesn’t have to be the case. It’s up to you. You have to work as a team.’”

Things have not exactly gone to plan. After a year of dire poll ratings and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s popularity nosediving, the party is ending 2023 in a state of civil war over migration and how far the government should go to keep its flagship Rwanda asylum policy alive.

With the election expected within a year — it must be held by January 2025 at the latest — Sunak is seeking this weekend to avert a mutiny and dark threats from rightwing Tory MPs that they might try to bring him down.

“I have heard people say that anyone would be better than him,” says one rightwing former cabinet minister. “He’s in personal peril. If people think they are heading for sure-fire defeat — and are being led by a loser — they might as well go down fighting.”

Richard Holden, Tory chair, had a blunt answer to those thinking of a leadership challenge. “It would be insanity to do that,” he told a Westminster press lunch this week. But the Conservatives have a taste for regicide. The chaotic Boris Johnson, who won the previous general election in 2019, was toppled in 2022. Liz Truss, his successor, was dispatched within 50 days after her economic policy imploded.

Sunak is not at immediate risk of joining them; although Tory rightwingers claim that over a dozen letters calling for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister have been submitted, that remains well short of the 53 required to trigger a vote.

If he were to be defenestrated, the Tories would have had four prime ministers in a single parliament: the opposition Labour party has only had six prime ministers in its entire history.

Ever since the prime minister took office in October 2022, he and his advisers have been pleading with Tory MPs to stop their internecine feuding. “Unite or die,” Sunak warned his party then. He repeated the same message again this week.

But 13 years in office appear to have taken their toll on the Conservatives. Opinion polls now show Sunak’s party trailing Labour by about 20 points, while the prime minister’s own standing with the voters hitting new lows. With Sunak’s allies eyeing a poll next autumn, time is running out.

Internal detailed polling carried out for the Conservatives and seen by the FT suggests the party could be reduced to 160 seats — down from 350 now, and fewer than after the Labour landslide of 1997 — at the election unless they pull out of the current slump.

Yet despite Levido’s reminder of what indiscipline could bring, the mood at Westminster is once again febrile, with attention focused on plotting rather than policymaking. It’s hard to fathom so close to an election, says one senior Tory official. “The party has got so used to arguing in public, it has forgotten how much voters hate it.” 

As George Osborne, former Conservative chancellor, said on his Political Currency podcast this week: “The Tory civil wars have completely reopened.”

Delegates wait for Rishi Sunak at the Tory conference in Manchester, where his announcement that he was scrapping a high-speed rail line to the city baffled many of his MPs
Delegates wait for Rishi Sunak at the Tory conference in Manchester, where his announcement that he was scrapping a high-speed rail line to the city baffled many of his MPs © Charlie Bibby/FT

The looming crunch point for the prime minister is a vital House of Commons vote on Tuesday as he brings forward a bill to revive his floundering plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The Tory party has split into two warring camps as the vote approaches: the right wing thinks the legislation is too weak and wants Britain to disapply its international human rights obligations to facilitate deportations; Tory moderates think it is too draconian.

Passions are running high. Suella Braverman, sacked as home secretary last month, has said the Tories are heading for “electoral oblivion” because of Sunak’s failure to come up with robust legislation to get migrants on a plane to Kigali. Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister, this week said Sunak’s bill was a “triumph of hope over experience”.

Sunak is confident that both wings of his party will eventually accept that the bill offers the best chance of getting migrants on a plane to Rwanda. But throughout 2023 the prime minister has tried to navigate between the two wings of his party, usually pleasing nobody, sometimes ending up in precarious policy positions.

The first half of the year saw Sunak rolling up his sleeves and sorting out some knotty problems in the guise of “Rishi the Problem Solver”, Downing Street’s favoured descriptor of the technocratic premier. The “Windsor framework” that resolved the festering row with the EU over the trading status of Northern Ireland was touted as a success.

But the polls refused to budge and Tory MPs became increasingly agitated. In the second half of 2023, Sunak’s political strategy has often been hard to discern. His decision, for example, to announce in his autumn Conservative conference speech in Manchester that he was scrapping a high-speed rail line, to Manchester, baffled many Tory MPs.

Sunak’s predicament partly reflects the fact he is trying to hold together a coalition of voters bequeathed to him by Johnson, a fissiparous group who rallied behind the charismatic leader’s “Get Brexit Done” message, while at the same time recoiling from the leftwing former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Johnson won a Tory majority of 80, the biggest since the Thatcher era, by winning socially conservative, working-class seats in northern England and Wales while also holding on to liberal, middle-class seats in the party’s traditional southern heartlands. Sunak’s efforts to please both parts of that coalition have left him performing the political equivalent of the splits.

Sunak rides on a Border Force boat off Dover. The prime minister is trying to please both wings of his party, one of which thinks his immigration policy is too weak and the other that  it is too draconian
Sunak rides on a Border Force boat off Dover. The prime minister is trying to please both wings of his party, one of which thinks his immigration policy is too weak and the other that it is too draconian © Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Take the environment. Sunak insists Britain has one of the best records in the world in moving to a net zero economy — a cause supported by many moderate Tories — but this year set a sceptical tone, denouncing “eco zealots”, watering down green targets and introducing gimmicky legislation intended to promote drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea.

On migration, Sunak authorised the expansion in August of the “shortage occupation list” to bring more foreign workers into the country to fill skills gaps and boost the economy, while three months later he scrapped the list altogether and slammed the brakes on legal migration after it emerged his government had allowed net migration to Britain in 2022 to rise to 745,000 — three times higher than the level in 2019.

Sunak used his party conference speech in October to denounce 30 years of failed politics — linking Tory predecessors including David Cameron to a supposed culture of “vested interests” and the “status quo” — only to bring Cameron into his cabinet a month later as foreign secretary.

The appointment of Cameron was presented as a reassuring pitch to southern Tories, who largely voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the new foreign secretary immediately said he wanted Britain to be “a friend, a neighbour and the best possible partner” to the EU.

To rightwingers, this felt like Sunak had chosen a side, with Cameron’s appointment reflecting the ascendancy of Tory moderates in the cabinet.

Under fire from his right flank, Sunak decided the following week to engineer a diplomatic row with Greece, cancelling at short notice a meeting with his centre-right Greek counterpart in a spat over the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles, which are on display at the British Museum. “Petulance and a complete lack of strategic direction,” laments one Tory grandee.

Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling that the scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful. Once again, Sunak was caught on the horns of a dilemma — to anger moderates by steamrollering legal obstacles to the bill, or infuriate the right by not going far enough.

Sunak explained this week he was unable to go further with his migration bill because Rwanda insisted that Britain acted within the law. “You could not make this up,” responded Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary. “The only thing stopping the British government ignoring international law completely is the Rwandan government.” 

James Cleverly, the new home secretary, has not denied previously calling the entire Rwanda scheme “batshit” and it emerged this week that the government has spent £240mn on a project which has been beset by legal challenges and has so far failed to see a single migrant sent to Africa.

It has all taken its toll on Sunak’s popularity. “At the start of the year, the prime minister’s personal poll ratings were stronger than his party’s,” says Keiran Pedley of polling group Ipsos. “In January, Rishi Sunak held a net favourability rating of minus 9, while the Conservative party stood at minus 26. Today Sunak’s stands at minus 28 and the Conservative party minus 33.”

A regular survey by the ConservativeHome activists’ blog this month found Sunak had fallen to the bottom of the cabinet league table in terms of popularity in the party, with a rating of minus 25. Paul Goodman, the blog’s editor, said his position was “dire”. 

“If you try to keep everyone happy, you end up making nobody happy,” says David Gauke, a former Tory justice secretary. “You have to make a choice. If you make a choice that makes the right happy, you end up doing stupid things. And they will always raise the bar.”

Demands from the Tory right that Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights was a case in point, Gauke says. “It’s a dangerous and reckless policy,” he adds. “Until it can be addressed, the Conservative party is ungovernable. It is a poison that has been in the Conservative party for a long time. The patient is in a dangerous state.”

Sunak leads a cabinet meeting with David Cameron opposite him. Cameron’s appointment  was presented as a reassuring pitch to Remain-voting Tories, but to rightwingers it felt like Sunak had chosen a side
Sunak leads a cabinet meeting with David Cameron opposite him. Cameron’s appointment was presented as a reassuring pitch to Remain-voting Tories, but to rightwingers it felt like Sunak had chosen a side © Getty Images

A reckoning is coming soon. Levido begins work full-time for the Tory party in January, with Sunak keeping open the option of an election in May, in the event that the political weather changes.

The main scenario in Downing Street, however, is to wait until October, allowing more time for the effects of the Autumn Statement’s tax cuts and falling inflation to feed through into people’s pockets and the wider economy.

A May election is seen by some in Number 10 as too soon in the political and economic cycle. But few Tory MPs believe their party will hold on to power whenever it is called.

Inside Number 10, there is still belief that Sunak can turn it around. “We knew this year was going to be shit,” says one ally of the prime minister. “But looking ahead to 2024, you’ve got the cut in national insurance contributions in January, inflation falling — people will start to feel their life is getting a bit better.”

Sunak’s team believes that they can survive the current political turmoil and eventually put their Rwanda plan into action. Then they can focus on the main economic message at the election, which is expected to see further tax cuts announced in a spring Budget in late February or early March.

“If we can deliver on the Rwanda bill against the odds, if we can show we kept our heads down and kept working, we can build that into a narrative that you can trust us to get things done,” says one Number 10 insider.

Conservative strategists believe that Sunak, with little to lose, will appear to be the more dynamic candidate in an election campaign than his Labour rival Sir Keir Starmer, whose own favourability ratings remain static.

“There’s no great enthusiasm for Starmer,” says a Number 10 insider. “People are annoyed with us, but if you ask them to make a choice at an election between Sunak and Starmer, that’s a different question.”

Labour is well aware that British political opinion is highly volatile. Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s campaign adviser, this week presented the shadow cabinet with graphs showing six elections from around the world where a party had started the contest well ahead, but saw the lead reversed in the campaign.

The Conservatives are already honing their attacks on Starmer, intending to present the Labour leader as “a risk”. Labour will be portrayed as wanting to borrow excessively — the party ultimately wants to spend £28bn a year on green projects — being soft on migration and keen to reopen Brexit.

But for Starmer to be presented as a risk, Sunak and his party will have to convince the country that what they currently have is worth holding on to. In a country with the highest tax burden since the second world war, almost 8mn people on hospital waiting lists and record levels of net migration, that could be a tall order.

Sunak’s allies believe that some in the Tory party, including Jenrick, are looking beyond the election and a leadership contest that would take place in the ashes of a defeat. The prime minister knows he has to shift that mindset quickly and to quell what one adviser called the “psychodrama” gripping the party.

He has been receiving help from Cameron, who was Tory leader when the party was last in opposition, and has been explaining to newer Tory MPs the pitfalls of losing power.

The questions facing Sunak’s fractious party this weekend is how much do they really care about clinging to office and do they have the discipline to at least make the election competitive? Levido’s challenge to Tory MPs still hangs in the air: “It’s up to you.”

Additional reporting by Rafe Uddin


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