Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: The political inanity of Rishi Sunak vs the ‘five families’

This week, the dispossessed, the never-possessed and the otherwise perennially discontented in the Conservative Party took aim at Rishi Sunak over his bid to implement the Rwanda deportation scheme, vying to bend the vulnerable prime minister to their collective ends.

But after days of speculation, stoked by a “star chamber”, incessant pressers and a breakfast in No 10, the “bastards” (as John Major once referred to his recalcitrants) misfired. Sunak’s rebels mustered a mere 29 abstentions when the lobby doors were locked on Tuesday — that is despite making it clear the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill fundamentally crossed their red lines.

The rebel factions that comprise the so-called “five families” claim to collectively represent more than 100 MPs overall. Thus, having marched much of SW1 to the summit of a steep hill through Tuesday — including with an eleventh-hour pool clip that placed Mark Francois alongside fellow family figureheads — this was a clear defeat for the Conservative Party’s anti-Sunak battalion(s).

So how did the “five families”, having been successfully stared down by the prime minister, respond? Well, in public, flowed a face-saving operation, with associated MPs insisting the PM had, after all, informed colleagues he is “prepared to entertain tightening the bill”.

But, in private, the families’ factional pitchforks turned inward — as hostile briefings were picked up by friendly journalists. On the day of the vote, The Sun’s Harry Cole reported that Francois was being referred to by his internal family critics as “Fredo”; some other more sanguine rebels admitted to the well-connected political editor that Francois’ shadow whipping was a “s***show”; “Not every meeting needs a pool clip”, decried another in a clear swipe at the spotlight-drenched European Research Group chair.

Today, as we consider the political futures of the “five families” — with hostile amendments set to be drafted over the festive season — it is worth further scrutinising the collective’s recent claims and largely overlooked founding myths.

In full, a mere six days separated Sunak’s announcement of the emergency Rwanda legislation from its appearance on the commons floor. Simply put, at some point during this period, a quintet of cliques appeared on the SW1 scene to declare themselves central to events. The pace of politics — as pool clips were filmed and star chambers reported — simply far outstripped SW1’s ability to grip and analyse developments.

That said, I am not doing anything journalistically novel in pondering: “who are the five families?”. (See reports in The Mirror, The Independent, Guido Fawkes, the i, the i again, The Spectator, The Telegraph, The Guardian and the BBC). And this, I fear, is just the tip of the SEO iceberg; oh, how Francois’ factionalism has quivered the fourth estate. But the nuances of how the five families interact with each other, as well as with Rishi Sunak, has arguably been lost in the process.

Who are the ‘five families’, really?

It is worth outlining at the top the key known unknowns about the “five families” — that is their sizes separately and size together. 

Mark Francois, as I have already stated, has insisted that where he leads, 100 MPs follow. But this figure appears to be based on “vibes” more than anything else. 

It certainly makes sense — as far as the ERG chairman’s political purposes go — for Francois to refuse to over-scrutinise the “five families” numerical strength, publicly at least. For that 100-MP figure succeeds in conjuring the image of an amassing rebellion on Rishi Sunak’s right flank; it also neatly mirrors the standing of the 106-MP strong One Nation group, Francois’ foremost factional antagonists. (In any case, if you add up the purported number of “five families” supporters together with the one nation group and the payroll vote, you get more than the number of Conservative MPs)

However, fortunately for Francois, there is no obvious way of testing this “100 MP” claim — membership lists aren’t available for a series of these groupings and supporter groupings are likely to be dynamic, in any case. 

But, more crucial still, it is easy to make a category mistake when treating “support” for an intra-party faction. In short, is a supporter/ member of a faction an MP who, (a), signs a letter written by the grouping; (b), attends a founding meeting; (c), retweets a caucus’ official statement on X (formerly Twitter); or, (d) some combination of the above? Do we, then, have to differentiate between “supporters” and “members”?

Plainly, factionalism is not an exact science — and certainly not when it comes to this Conservative Party. 

Take, for instance, this illustrative snippet from Tom Hunt (who I judge to be outwardly involved with four/five “families”). At the founding of the New Conservatives in May, he told reporters by declaring that there were a “wide group of MPs who are supportive of our work” — but, curiously, they were not listed as specifically endorsing the policies then-presented. 

Here flows another point: because Hunt is not nearly the only Conservative MP who is splitting his eggs into different factional baskets. Sir Simon Clarke, as far as I can tell, is supportive/a member of all five. And, alongside factotums Hunt and Clarke, there is also Sir John Hayes, who serves both as chairman of the Common Sense Group and president of the New Conservatives. 

But spreading oneself thin across the Conservative factional spectrum does not require the same ritual acts of ideological apostasy — that, say, a Labour MP would have to undertake if they were simultaneously signed up to the Socialist Campaign Group and some Labour Together parliamentary offering.

In truth, very little splits the New Conservatives and the Common Sense Group ideologically. The same tried and tired culture war tropes underpin both groupings’ platforms — they jointly majored on them at the National Conservative conference back in May, of course. 

The ostensible distinction, cited by members at the New Conservatives’ founding, is that the grouping group is comprised of MPs elected since the 2016 EU referendum — giving it a distinct geographical (Red Wall-centric) and temporal tilt (post-2017 election). The insinuation is that the grouping offers much-needed institutional protection to this new guard of Conservative MPs — defined deliberately in opposition to “old” one nation grandees. But this purported founding principle does not account for the presidency of Sir John Hayes, an MP since 1997; or the membership of Chris Green, an MP since 2015 and reportedly a New Conservative. 

What is more, before the establishment of the New Conservatives, the Northern Research Group (NRG) was set up after the 2019 election to champion red wall MPs’ interests — again, with a largely right-wing tilt. It was founded by Sir Jake Berry, who served in the cabinets of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, but is now chaired by John Stevenson MP.

Sir Jake also happens to be a leading light in the Conservative Growth Group, a Trussite cabal, alongside Sir Jacob Rees Mogg, Dame Priti Patel, Sir Simon Clarke and Ranil Jayawardena. The grouping is said to have the support of 60 MPs, although a full list is once more lacking.

Finally, we have the European Research Group, which — as I wrote earlier this week — is the de facto leader of the “five families”. This is likely because of its long-established position within the parliamentary party; it was set up in 1993 and went on to feature centrally in the Brexit debates from 2016-2019. Because of its pedigree, there appears to be less crossover than with the newer groupings; but Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman, high-profile MPs who are associated with the other families, are both former chairs. 

Why the Conservative Party still can’t break free from the ERG

But here’s the crucial point: such crossover MPs notwithstanding, it strains credulity significantly to suggest these caucuses’ individual memberships come together to form one overriding “five family” whole. 

This was plain to see after a mere 29 Conservatives abstained on Tuesday, a development which clearly exposed the “five families” lack of unity. Indeed, several high-profile MPs linked with the “five families” publicly backed Sunak’s legislation, such as John Stevenson, the NRG chair who declared ahead of the vote that Sunak’s proposed legislation would be “overwhelmingly” supported by northern MPs.

This brings us to another important point: because if you skim the top of the caucuses that make up the “five families” and zoom in on the most outspoken advocates from each, you are presented with the prime minister’s essential “awkward squad”. 

You will find before you individuals such as Danny Kruger, Sir Simon Clarke, Miriam Cates, Sir John Hayes, Sir Jake Berry and Mark Francois. These named MPs all abstained on Tuesday and have been conspicuous in the aftermath of the vote, collectively looking ahead to a much-touted “tightening up” amendment. 

When we talk about the “five families”, therefore, as some unity grouping, it is really these individuals and a small constellation of allies that we are talking about. In this way, we can add to the rebel list above recent government flotsam and jetsam — Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman respectively — as well as some aye-voters on Tuesday, like Rees-Mogg, and the anti-Sunak, the Rwanda maximalist cabal takes further form. 

In this way, the “five families” moniker — while derided by many — helps us demarcate those MPs who see anti-Sunak factionalism as an end in itself as opposed to other figures on the Conservative right (like the PM and much of his government). 

From here, we can say the “five families” vs. Rishi Sunak dynamic — as it has been styled in the media and across SW1 in recent weeks, concealed rather a lot more than it revealed. 

In fact, it is worth relating is that the manifold difficulties Rishi Sunak will face in the New Year will not flow from his dynamic with the “five families”, but, rather, as a result of clashes at committee stage between Rwanda minimalists (One Nation MPs) and Rwanda maximalists (the Sunak awkward squad).

In this likely eventuality, the PM will be reduced to a mere spectator, as he desperately tries to cohere a consensus where none exists. 

Indeed, senior One Nation MPs Matt Warman, Damian Green and Robert Buckland have all urged/warned the prime minister to reject any and all representations from his right flank. They will hope that the “five families’” misfire on Tuesday will be interpreted in No 10 as illustrative of the weakness of Sunak’s perennially rebellious “awkward squad’” relative to their instinctively-supportive one nation clique. 

Furthermore, Sir Robert Buckland, a member of the One Nation group, is reported to be considering tabling an amendment of his own in January to ensure that the proposed legislation is compatible with the European convention on human rights. “It could get support from across the House, unlike amendments that may be tabled by the right”, Buckland told The Guardian. 

This amendment may prove far more tricky to Sunak than anything emanating from the right. This will certainly be the case if it is backed by a large section of the One Nation grouping, as well as — tacitly — influential moderate cabinet members (such as Alex Chalk and Victoria Prentis) and perhaps some pragmatic opposition MPs looking to rub salt in the factional wounds of the Conservative Party.

“How will Francois respond?”, I hear you ask. One assumes he will at some point stand in front of a camera, flanked by Kruger, Cates and Hayes, in an attempt to will his power into existence. It won’t work. Just ask one Rishi Sunak — his party-management strategy appears to run according to similar principles.

Once more, therefore, we can judge that neither Rishi Sunak nor his foremost intra-party critics have any good options.

Week-in-Review: Sunak has no good options — but neither do his Conservative critics

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

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