Lee Anderson as deputy Conservative Party chair was a resignation waiting to happen

The real question when it comes to Lee Anderson’s resignation yesterday — ahead of the first set of votes on Rwanda Bill amendments — is not “why did it happen?”, but “why did it take so long?”.

The former deputy Conservative chair told the prime minister it had been a “huge honour” to serve the party in his resignation letter, co-signed as it was with fellow deputy chair departee Brendan Clarke-Smith. 

In fact, on reflection, Anderson’s resignation missive was atypically diplomatic by the controversial standards of the “Red Wall Rottweiler”. Rather than tear off his muzzle and take a chunk out of Sunak’s government, he wrote reflectively alongside Clarke-Smith: “We fully appreciate that whilst our main wish is to strengthen the legislation, this means that in order to vote for amendments we will therefore need to offer you our resignations from our roles”.

With incongruous calm, therefore, Anderson and Clarke-Smith have taken after fellow “small boats” martyrs Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick in resigning themselves to the backbench wilderness. Newly collected, they now spearhead the charge for Rishi Sunak to toughen up the Rwanda Bill. 

‘We want the Rwanda Bill to work’ — Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith’s resignation letter in full

Ultimately, to explain Anderson’s eleventh-hour resignation yesterday one needs to reconsider the context of January/February 2023 — the period immediately prior to his appointment as Conservative deputy chair. 

Because, one year ago, a chorus of Conservative backbenchers went ahead and called for Sunak to appoint Anderson as the full party chair in the wake of Nadhim Zahawi’s resignation over his tax affairs. “Who agrees with me that Lee Anderson would make a great Chairman of the Conservative Party?”, MP Marco Longhi asked his Twitter followers. 

This was a period when the “Bring Back Boris” brigade still longed for the instalment of their banished champion as PM. Anderson was viewed as a prominent supporter of the former prime minister; after all, during the shortened second leadership contest of 2022, Anderson did indeed back Boris. 

Moreover, it was the soon-to-be deputy party chair’s Facebook post on 22 October that confirmed Johnson — newly returned from a post-premiership get-away in the Caribbean — was actually a contender to replace Liz Truss. With a photo of Johnson attached, Anderson wrote: “My Choice. Boris Johnson just called me. We have had a long chat about everything past and present. My inbox is full of BBB [Bring Back Boris]. I am drawing a line under it. Boris has my support”. 

In the end, Johnson decided not to pursue his candidacy, Anderson’s champion duly dropped out, and Rishi Sunak was appointed as prime minister sans contest. The rest, as they say, is politics. 

In February, therefore, Sunak’s appointment of Anderson as deputy chair was viewed both as a classic sop to his critics and a bid to scalp the Conservative Party’s “Bring Back Boris” clique. Anderson was invited into the tent as a visible — and very vocal — signal that the concerns of Red Wall MPs were being appreciated by ministers.

But the appointment did not come without political pain for the prime minister. In fact, it came just a week after leaked messages from a Conservative MP WhatsApp group captured Anderson likening the government to “the band on the Titanic” on the issue of small boat crossings. Sunak was “playing the same tune and ignoring the obvious”, Anderson lamented. Then, just days after his appointment, the now-deputy chair backed the return of the death penalty as part of a pre-reshuffle interview with The Spectator. Sunak was forced to confirm this was not government policy. 

But Anderson’s appointment, of course, also came with clear strings attached for the man himself. This was made plain in July 2023, when Anderson — slated to be the star member of the “New Conservatives” group of right-wing Tory MPs — failed to show at the faction’s launch. The ever-conspicuous, always outspoken Anderson was reported to be bedridden on account of “a terrible sick bug”. (Media briefings about the AWOL Anderson from New Conservative sympathisers suggested he was now dancing to the PM’s tune).

Where do the ‘New Conservatives’ fit in Rishi Sunak’s crowded factional field?

In some senses, Anderson’s Spectator interview and his New Conservatives no-show capture perfectly the liminal positioning of a party “deputy chair”. Indeed, Anderson — although he was on the payroll as a salaried party spokesperson — was not a government minister and, ergo, a frontbencher. Still, he was expected to be out on the broadcast media repeatedly talking up the prime minister’s priorities. 

However, New Conservatives snub notwithstanding, it soon became clear that Anderson was far from operating at the beck and call of the prime minister. Indeed, while home secretary James Cleverly cut his political chops as a ruthlessly on-message deputy chair, during his time in post Anderson called on asylum seekers unhappy with the Bibby Stockholm barge to “F*** off back to France” and for the government to “ignore the law” following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Rwanda plan. 

Rwanda ruling: PM shares ‘frustrations’ of Lee Anderson after ‘ignore the law’ comment

Such was the Lee-way afforded to the Red Wall Rottweiler, Anderson — whom Sunak never quite managed to muzzle.   

But, again, that is not to stay that Anderson was a perennially rebellious deputy chair. At prime minister’s questions last week, for instance, he dutifully delivered a planted question on the Post Office scandal — which included a pointed (and now rather ironic) swipe at Sir Ed Davey. Referencing the Liberal Democrat leader’s role as Post Office minister from 2010-2012, Anderson instructed Davey to “take his own advice, and start by clearing his desk, clearing his diary and clear off”. And, just five days ago, Anderson sat down with the prime minister to film a social media clip in which the loved-up culture warriors collectively regretted the vices of modern life. 

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”, the prime minister declared upon reading the news that students at Bristol University had “axed” the national anthem from graduation ceremonies, sat alongside his deputy chair. “One thing that you and I both agree on is that we should be so proud of our country”, Sunak suggested. 

“This country of ours is a gift to the world”, Anderson agreed. 

But, it seems, backing the government on the Rwanda Bill was a step too far for the now-resigned deputy Conservative chair. He is now free to join the backbench cliques he was banned from conniving with as deputy chair and unshackled as he tours the (GB News) media studios. 

As far as Rishi Sunak is concerned, the PM has been forced to firm both the political pain of appointing and retaining Anderson as deputy party chair — as well as the political pain of accepting his resignation. It is the worst of both worlds. 

But Anderson, too, faces a testing political dilemma: how quickly does he now restyle himself a government critic, having just yesterday been a paid-up supporter of the PM? 

In this way, it seems unlikely that the former deputy party chair will vote against the unamended Rwanda Bill at third reading this evening. But, lest his resignation be rubbished meaningless by the media and his allies, it is probably only a matter of time before Anderson rediscovers his never-entirely disregarded rebel streak. 

On top of this, Anderson — a former coal miner and Labour councillor who defected to the Tories in 2018 — is a politically fluid individual. Might the welcome embrace of Reform UK await Anderson, as part of a last-chance saloon attempt to avoid a routing in his Ashfield seat? Party leader Richard Tice certainly hopes so.

Why Reform UK remains a mystery

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

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