Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Rishi Sunak and the long shadow of Conservative psychodrama

When Rishi Sunak was gushed into Downing Street in October 2022, surrounded by the rumble of Liz Truss’ collapsed premiership, he faced a profound dilemma. As he acknowledged on the steps of No 10, the terms of his accession meant he was forced to assume the role of “fix it” prime minister: he was tasked with “fixing” his faction-riven party; “fixing” its reputation for fiscal probity; and, ultimately, “fixing” its electoral prospects. 

When the door of No 10 Downing Street opened on 25 October, Sunak thus entered a political silo as a post-Truss, post-Johnson prime minister. Cast as a corrective premier, he recognised the clear risk: when the history of this latest iteration of Conservative government is written, he would be reduced to a mere footnote — relative, at least, to the political excesses of his predecessors. 

So, in a doughty bid to weave the warp of fortune’s designs in January 2023, Sunak locked eyes with posterity as he penned five ruthlessly pragmatic pledges. He would not be defined by Truss’ fiscal furore or Johnson’s lax standards legacy — but by his own dogged professionalism. 

For all the strategic switch-ups and media soundbites that have since flowed, Sunak’s ambition in this regard has never once wavered. His tilt against “30 years” of failed consensus, debuted with much machismo at Conservative Party conference last year, was another attempt to contour his own political narrative in terms favourable to him; so, too, is his latest pitch at voters, who are now urged to reject “square one” and Keir Starmer. 

But each relaunch, dividing line and Labour-facing “trap” has barely masked the brutal underlying reality: Rishi Sunak is struggling to hone his pitch and break the forces — Johnsonian, Trussite or some other associated creed — that seek to undermine him. In short, he still does not possess an answer to the question that animated his initial five pledges: how does one govern in the shadow of psychodrama?

This question has taken on renewed prominence in recent days in the wake of Sir Simon Clarke’s stinging Telegraph op-ed. Clarke, a loyal cabinet minister under both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, declared last week that Sunak is “leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred”. “He does not get what Britain needs. And he is not listening to what the British people want”, Clarke added. 

The headlines and column inches Clarke’s intervention inspired will have caused deep consternation in Downing Street. Of course, it came alongside a mysterious poll, commissioned by the clandestine Conservative Britain Alliance (CBA), that purported to show how a real conservative leader could quite easily best Starmer. This came but days after another poll, again borne of the CBA and splashed by the Telegraph, pointing to a 1997-style landslide for the Labour Party. 

Plainly, a plot was afoot — and loyal Conservative parliamentarians rallied behind their exposed premier. For days, a burgeoning pro-Sunak battalion of Tory MPs competed with the lone Clarke for media attention and airtime. In the end, Prime Minister’s Questions last week came and went without a “in the name of God, go” moment. Clarke, isolated and ridiculed, had lost the battle. 

But questions still abound as to the direction of war: who, besides a little-known former No 10 pollster, makes up the rebel ranks of the Conservative Britain Alliance? When did it form? Who funds it? When will they strike again?

In the end, the Conservative Britain Alliance and its backers will remain secret as long as it is politically propitious. Its intention — to operate as an anti-Sunak critical mass, rather than as a mass movement — is nonetheless plain. 

On reflection, while the CBA represents a new force in the war for the soul of the Conservative Party — last week equally reminded us of that which has not changed: specifically, the role of Sir Simon Clarke. 

For Clarke’s op-ed was far from the opening salvo in the campaign to deprive Sunak of high office.

The Telegraph’s spin, designed to legitimise Clarke’s coup attempt, suggested the onetime chief secretary to the Treasury is a “former cabinet ally” of the PM. But while Clarke will have rubbed shoulders with Sunak in the Treasury as his deputy, he has since emerged as the most consistently outspoken member of the prime minister’s rebel alliance. 

There is no shortage claimants to the throne of Sunak’s awkward squad; but Clarke — who has featured in and/or led in rebellions against the PM on housebuilding, wind farms, tax cuts, legal migration, the Rwanda plan — probably possesses the best. He is an associate of a full five out of five of the so-called “five families” of Conservative groupings — the quintet of caucuses that formed amid the Rwanda Bill’s commons stages. And, before his political capital-exhausting regicidal spasm last week, he was slated to feature at the founding of Liz Truss’ latest entrant into the Conservative factional landscape: the “Popular Conservatism” movement. 

Beyond the Rwanda Bill: The Conservative Party faces a bitter, protracted reckoning

How to govern in the shadow of psychodrama?

If the prime minister has concocted any consistent strategy over the past year, it has been to stay busy. Witness him as he tours marginal seats and undertakes regular policy blitzes from the hyper-political (the Rwanda scheme) to the relatively banal (vaping ban). The message has never been subtle: he intends to remind recalcitrant MPs what policy delivery looks like in the hope that they lower their pitchforks and begin, once more, to rally as one. 

In this way, Sunak’s response to Clarke’s Telegraph op-ed was telling. With the vast majority of Conservative MPs united in opposition to Clarke, Sunak ploughed ahead with announcements on smoking and vaping bans. Elsewhere, progress on the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland has also happily coincided with the aftermath of Clarke’s failed coup. 

But, in the wake of Sunak’s new vaping announcement, how quickly rebels amassed. Liz Truss immediately took to the fore, blasting the PM’s proposed smoking ban as “unconservative”. And, amid confusion over whether the commons vote on the vaping ban will be whipped, The Sun newspaper reported that as many as 20 ministers could reject their own government’s position. 

It points to a broader truth: the ever-busy Rishi Sunak is struggling to outrun the shadow of psychodrama that stalks his premiership. In fact, the more policy blitzes he spins into the news agenda, the more opportunities he grants his awkward squad to rebel accordingly. Every commons vote is a crunch point; every press conference a lightning rod for criticism. 

It is plain to see how and why the Conservative Party today — scarred by two regicides since 2022 — is not behaving according to “typical” political laws. MPs are not falling behind their prime minister en masse as an election approaches; the conservative press is becoming an antagonist, rather than an ally; ambition, not loyalty, is viewed as a virtue; cabinet colleagues support in public but plot in private; and “runners and riders” lists of potential Sunak are furiously scribbled by the press and digested by political insiders and outsiders alike. 

This reality, no less than a new Conservative Party settlement, is a clear consequence of the party’s recent psychodramatic arc.

Step back, and much of the Tories’ post-Truss, post-Boris settlement can be measured materially: see the explosion of WhatsApp group chats (often comprised of supporters from a past leadership contest) and parliamentary caucuses. And, crucially, these developments show little sign of slowing. Only in recent days have we learnt of Truss’ new “Popular Conservatism” movement and business secretary Kemi Badenoch’s membership of an “evil plotters” group chat. 

But there are other ways of measuring the lingering legacy of Conservative psychodrama. Note how Clarke instructed his colleagues in his Telegraph op-ed: “We can change leader, and give our country and party a fighting chance”. This level of flippancy regarding the prospect of enstooling the fourth prime minister in this parliament is remarkable — and telling. The prime minister’s post has become, for some, another post into which MPs can be shuffled in and out. The Conservative Party not only talks to itself now — but extreme solutions to intractable political/electoral problems are increasingly the topic of conversation.

In the wake of three regicides (Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Liz Truss), most Conservative MPs can identify with a “coup”, either as a winner or a loser. Indeed, one reading of recent Conservative history paints Rishi Sunak as an arch-schemer, masterminding the downfall of Johnson and Truss consecutively. Twice the prime minister has deprived Simon Clarke of a cabinet post, the former chief secretary to the treasury and levelling up secretary might conclude. Why should he now get a free pass?

While Clarke is right now an isolated voice, dismissed by Sunak’s allies as a Trussite crank — the picture is in constant evolution. For with February arrives another double by-election day in two seats the Conservative Party won handsomely at the 2019 election. Electors in Wellingborough and Kingswood can be expected to give Rishi Sunak’s party a kicking, as they slide into a variety of anti-Conservative receptacles such as Starmer’s Labour, or perhaps more portentously, Reform UK. 

Once the results are in, after an initial period of feigned shock, followed by a round of WhatsApp introspection, more MPs could join Clarke in calling for Sunak’s ouster.

It seems overwhelmingly probable that soon, in a post-election scenario, Rishi Sunak will cease to be leader of the Conservatives. But there is also no reason to believe the fall of another party premier will radically alter the dynamics of intra-Conservative conflict. Indeed, if Sunak’s successor fails to make strides against a Starmer government, how long before the call goes out to be deprive them of their office — presumably from some dispossessed faction? 

WhatsApp groups can be deleted and caucuses dissolved, but with regicide comes cultural and institutional consequences — and, with Clarke’s op-ed in particular, this is increasingly plain. 

It bodes ill for Rishi Sunak and whoever dares to follow him. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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