Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

What the Conservative ‘right’ gets wrong about Rishi Sunak

After a rendition of God Save the King by Andrea Jenkyns — the opera-singing MP adorned with a Union flag-print fascinator, delegates to the inaugural conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation were welcomed to Bournemouth on Saturday with a rousing if curious curtain-raiser: “Good morning real Conservatives!”. 

This greeting, reportedly met with riotous applause from the two-hundred-odd attendees, is the essence of the CDO’s unco political offering. 

The group — which is the brainchild of key Boris Johnson allies Lord Cruddas and the former MEP David Campbell Bannerman — is professedly about the reform of Conservative party Headquarters (CCHQ) and party democratisation. Campbell Bannerman even insists the CDO is “not an anti-Rishi” organisation.

But the conference’s opening clarion call sits uneasily with its nominal emphasis on a grassroots-focused revamp of party structures. From those first words uttered at the podium, there could be little disguising the true theme of the coastal fête: Boris Johnson, conspicuous as he was in his absence.

Indeed, if the gathering was convened purely to gauge consensus on CCHQ reform, the CDO failed to inform some of its attendees. “Rishi is dripping wet”, one delegate told the Telegraph. And shouts of “Sunak out!” could be heard between applauses from the conference floor. 

Of course, despite the depth of feeling from delegates, no platform speaker called for the prime minister to resign. It was not yet time to wade the anti-Rishi Rubicon; but figures like former home secretary Priti Patel were undoubtedly dipping their toes in the water.

In her address, Patel blamed the party’s centre, who “have done a better job of damaging our party than the opposition, the left-wing campaign groups”, for recent the local election rout. Lord Cruddas was arguably even more candid: “I think the party has been hijacked by left-leaning europhile people — I want the Conservative Party to revert back to centre-right”, he told GB News.

So for all the pro forma denials, Boris Johnson and the party’s supposed centrist tilt under Sunak were the conference’s unmistakable common threads. The message was thus: Sunak might be here to stay for now, but in the long-run only a Johnsonite can save the party from liberal pretenders.

However, the CDO’s logic here, that Sunak is an arch wet whose occupancy of Downing Street has coincided with the return of mushy Cameroon Conservatism, strains credulity significantly. 

While our formerly California-dwelling, millennial prime minister appears far from a textbook Johnsonian populist — he is no moderate. In fact, the PM sees himself as a small-state Thatcherite who wants to roll back regulation, cut public spending, clampdown on small boats, stoke culture wars and bed in the Brexit he believed in from the start. 

Rishi, the arch wet?

In 2019, Sunak was an early backer of Johnson’s bid for leadership of the Conservative party, along with fellow fast-risers Oliver Dowden, who is now deputy PM, and immigration minister Robert Jenrick. Of course, there was no shortage of wets to whom Sunak could turn if he was so inclined; Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart would have all welcomed the rising star to their moderate, more one-nation-like stalls.  

Sunak was then rewarded for his support with his first cabinet appointment as chief secretary to the treasury, a post which preceded his elevation as chancellor. Charged with leading the economy through Covid, Sunak fast-emerged as a vocal opponent of further lockdowns from within government.

But it was probably the fact that his voice was also the loudest in favour of fiscal restraint that began Sunak’s journey from right-wing rising star to wet scapegoat. 

Sunak’s tenure as chancellor cannot have been easy. High-spending, headline-grabbing infrastructure projects were the order of the day; as PM, Johnson never saw a spending commitment he didn’t like, a tax break he didn’t push or a project he would not patronise. Johnsonianism is a pandering creed, where cakes were had and duly eaten. “Bean counter” Sunak hence became an obstacle. 

And in the summer 2022 leadership contest Liz Truss, crucially, inherited Johnson’s fervent distaste for trade-offs. 

Versus Truss, Sunak became trapped in a naysaying, tax-rising doom loop. Fiscal stolidity was far from farseeing enough to woo expectant activists. Nor could it be easily hidden that some of his key supporters consisted of individuals like Andrew Mitchell, Steve Brine, Simon Hoare, Jeremy Hunt and Damian Green (after other moderate options were exhausted) — erstwhile remainers who are associated with the one-nation wing of the party.

It was therefore a curious part of the summer leadership contest that Liz Truss, who spoke of plans to increase legal immigration citing economic growth, won the standard of the true blue Conservative while Sunak found himself slighted as a sly Cameroon. Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg even took to branding the Brexit-supporting Thatcherite as a “socialist”.

The origins of the Sunak myth

In politics, myths are created because they are useful. 

Different parts of the Conservative party want to believe that Sunak is a moderate, and that the recent progress of right-wing legislation like the illegal migration bill and the minimum service legislation for strikes are not the prime minister at heart. 

For Patel, who may be angling for a leadership run herself, her pitch now will be focussed on wresting control of the party back from the left.

For Johnson, he can style his defenestration in the summer of 2022 as the product, not of a series of rolling scandals such as “partygate” and “Pinchergate”, but of an ideologically-motivated organised conspiracy.  

For right-wing political parties such Reform UK, they will eye electoral possibility in the view that the Conservatives under Sunak are tacking to the centre.

For those one-nationers who backed Sunak in the summer leadership election, it suits their political standing to believe that the PM and Suella Braverman’s political partnership, for instance, is an unwilling coalition. 

And for Sunak himself, his ability to pivot between ideological perspectives, parroting the values of the one nation group on some occasions and throwing red meat to his party’s right flank on others, may in time serve him well. The Conservative party’s essential electoral problem is its vast political geography — and straddling the Red Wall-Blue Wall divide could still prove an electoral asset.  

But we shouldn’t be fooled. Back in 2016, Sunak backed Brexit enthusiastically even when there was no obvious political benefit — it marks him out from previous remain premiers Theresa May and Liz Truss, as well as Boris Johnson whose two-column approach epitomised his ideological vacillation. As PM, Sunak then swiftly denied rumours of a ‘Swiss deal’ on Brexit or knowledge of the “secret” cross-party summit. And although Sunak may have upset the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservatives with a U-turn on EU retained law, secretary of state Kemi Badenoch seems entirely behind the decision.

Furthermore, during his 6 months in 10 Downing Street, he has allied with Suella Braverman in attempts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and gambled on vetoing Nicola Sturgeon’s gender recognition reform bill. On this latter area, viewed increasingly through a prism of “culture wars”, Sunak has also taken a direct interest in Badenoch’s drive to amend the Equality Act to allow organisations to bar trans women from single-sex spaces and events.

So even as representatives of the Conservative party right, including the home secretary, limber up to the National Conservative conference, we must not forget that the prime minister and his party right are at one on the biggest policy questions facing the country. 

And as for the CDO, the myth that the PM and his allies are akin to entryists may in the end have more to do with stalled political careers than political reality.