Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak’s authority is shot

Another week ends with Rishi Sunak’s political standing and authority greatly diminished. The mood amongst Conservative MPs is more febrile, tenser and less certain. The narrative of the party’s decline is sharper still. 

The month of March has been characterised by a tangible vibe shift in Conservative politics. The political fundamentals have hardly altered; but Tory MPs’ understanding of them, and apparent resignation to them, is clearer than ever. Where slim hopes of a Sunakian revival once flickered, pragmatic fatalism reigns. 

That is the prevailing reading of the political runes today as the Conservative Party reels from two distinct crises; scandals which have served together to deepen its sense of malaise. 

Take the curious case of Lee Anderson. In whatever capacity the freshly-minted Reform UK MP has served since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, his actions have impaired No 10’s capacity to control the political narrative. Whether he has been sat within tent or outwith it, Anderson has been a walking, spewing negation of the prime minister’s authority. 

Moreover, Anderson’s critiques mattered — and matter — because of the platform provided to him by the prime minister in February 2023. Sunak, simply, once trusted Anderson to speak on his behalf. It is this failed process of accommodation that is, in part, why Sunak is so often dismissed as “weak”.

In contrast to the immediacy and shocking nature of donor Frank Hester’s comments, then, the fallout from Anderson’s decision to lump in with the Faragist Reform UK is the culmination of a long arc of political miscalculation on the part of No 10. 

Rather, the case of Frank Hester speaks to a level of political mismanagement on a tighter but somehow more maladroit scale. On Tuesday morning, ministers were initially sent out to defend Hester, who has given the party £15 million in the last year. Following reports Hester said Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and “should be shot”, one media sacrifice counselled the country to merely “move on”. 

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This, of course, played out in a week in which the government had planned to style itself as a bastion against extremism.

This episode, whereby a line was adopted, defended and subsequently abandoned — all in the space of a single news cycle, cast Conservative minds back to the ailing months of Boris Johnson’s administration. Awkward parallels were drawn with the ex-PM’s defence of his former fixer Chris Pincher — a saga which prompted Rishi Sunak’s resignation as chancellor. 

Week-in-Review: The Conservative Party has come to terms with its malaise

It was Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, who in effect bounced Sunak into denouncing Hester, after declaring on Twitter/X that the donor’s reported comments were, in fact, racist. Sunak broke his silence via a spokesperson four hours later. Not even John Major, despite Tony Blair’s famous retort, was so clearly piloted between positions by his MPs. 

The Anderson and Hester political crises are, of course, significant in their own right. Anderson’s defection will galvanise Reform-Conservative electoral competition, and place booster rockets under the former’s name recognition. The Hester scandal looks likely to roll into next week. 

But, together, they have so shaken the foundations of Conservative politics because of how they figure broadly in the story of Sunakian governance — and, specifically, how they contravene the core tenets of the government Sunak was meant to lead. 

Rishi Sunak rolled into No 10 because he was credited with a reputation for competence — hard-won after his summer tussle with Trussonomics. Even if rescuing the party post-Truss was an impossible task, he could at least restore the party’s reputation as a vessel for sound governance — ploughing ahead regardless of the embittered churn of the news cycle. He would act as the political equivalent of a painkiller, dulling the Conservative Party’s self-destructive instincts and, in turn — at the very least, perhaps — easing his party towards a respectable defeat. 

That was the essence of Sunak’s mandate.

But how long ago it seems that Sunak boldly pledged to lead a government defined by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The Anderson and Hester sagas are so troubling, in the end, because of what they reveal of the prime minister’s political instincts — or lack thereof. 

The Conservative Party is coming to terms with a difficult but increasingly unavoidable truth: Sunak cannot do politics. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The prime minister’s penchant for off-kilter speeches about maths; his eyebrow-raising interview with Elon Musk; his deployment of a transgender jibe at PMQs while the mother of a murdered transgender teen toured the estate; his abrupt cancellation of the Greek prime minister over the Parthenon marbles; and, more significantly, his frequent strategic relaunches and de-launches are all cases in point. None of this was 4D chess — but rather misguided actions informed by a misreading of what the political moment demands. 

After all, there is no way of delineating the trajectory of our politics — and the apparently inexorable decline of Conservative fortunes — that does take account of the repeated missteps by the prime minister, who was dealt a bad hand and has played it poorly. 

There was once a time when, for all of Sunak’s foibles, he was genuinely seen as the best candidate in a pool of 350-odd Conservative MPs to steer the party to the next election. But this bedrock of Sunak’s stay in No 10 has been eroded by a rolling tide of crises — at the centre of which have been the PM’s inability to make swift and/or sound political judgments.

Step back, and the Conservative Party is stuck with a premier who makes crises appear when they needn’t (Anderson) and more testing but manageable crises appear genuinely existential (Hester). 

In the end, it is little wonder that some Conservative MPs are more and more drawn to the prospect of enstooling a new occupant in No 10 — a fourth prime minister this parliament.

Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, is the individual increasingly touted by Conservative MPs as the person who can right the wrongs of the Sunak administration. Moderates and right-wingers alike are reported to have met to consider her “unity” candidature. 

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That some Conservative MPs think the solution to their party’s tumult is another premier is, after all, highly revealing as to the scale of the problems the party has identified.

Labour’s attack lines would, of course, write themselves. Keir Starmer would righteously rubbish Mordaunt as a mere caretaker leader in an ungovernable party — the latest by-product of the Conservative chaos machine.

Still, polling does show that Mordaunt is the best-placed of Sunak’s potential Tory successors among both the public and the Conservative Party’s 2019 electoral coalition. But it is unclear that those answering such surveys acknowledge the nature of Mordaunt’s pathway to No 10; it is a process that, despite the protestations of her apparent backers, would be an intensely acrimonious affair.

Other ambitious pretenders would not give up the crown to Mordaunt so easily; and the obvious means of ousting Sunak — by cabinet coup, vote of no confidence or both — would not tend to the “unity” that Mordaunt’s proponents suggest would soon spring. 

In the end, Sunak’s best protection, right now, is the disagreement among Conservative rebels about who should lead. Reports that all shades of Conservative opinion are rallying, or could rally, behind Mordaunt do not stand up to scrutiny. In any case, can a despondent Conservative Party really pull off such a high-stakes, complex putsch?

That is why the nature of the Conservative Party’s tailspin is so torturous for the Tory rank and file. Sunak has essentially proved that he does not have it within him to make up the massive Labour-Conservative polling deficit; it isn’t even clear, based on the prevalent evidence, that the PM is capable of narrowing the gap at all.  

The result is a genuinely insoluble crisis. Sunak’s options, plainly — a cabinet reshuffle, a policy blitz, a No 10 rejig — do not stand up to the moment’s demands. The Conservative Party’s most obvious option, that of regicide, is belied by its inherent lack of seriousness. 

But still, major flashpoints for anti-Sunak posturing loom, including potential court challenges to his plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and the local elections on 2 May. 

It means that by delaying an election, the prime minister has likely prolonged his — and his party’s — torment. Ministers still tour the broadcast studios and turn up for urgent questions in the commons; but the cogs of government have otherwise ground to a halt. 

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Next week, the prime minister’s obvious priority will be to shore up his position within his party and kill any emergent coup — it sets up another seven days of fatiguing crisis management. 

That is the Conservative Party’s trajectory right now: unsustainable yet unrelenting tailspin.  

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

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