Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Rishi Sunak, rattled by impending irrelevance, risks overseeing his party’s destruction

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There was method, we felt obliged to conclude, to the madness. When Rishi Sunak strolled onto Downing Street on that fateful May day, after hours of feverish speculation in Westminster, the prime minister was determined to do something he had yet to accomplish in No 10: seize the agenda. 

The plan allowed for few slip-ups; an early election, called contrary to the settled consensus at Westminster, was designed to ambush Sunak’s opponents. Labour had reportedly loosened its limits on holidays for staffers — so sure was the party’s leadership that an election would be called in the autumn. Reform, meanwhile, was busy ridding its candidate ranks of cranks and conspiracists. Nigel Farage, then the party’s honorary president, was putting the infrastructure in place for a run of his own. But the ex-UKIP leader’s plans were far from fully formulated. 

That was the central logic behind a summer poll. And around this core, a broader strategy began to form. In the opening days of the campaign, with Farage successfully wrong-footed, the Conservative Party dedicated its resources to neutralising the Reform threat. Press releases were duly pinged into journalists’ inboxes, outlining plans for a new national service scheme and a “pensions triple lock plus”. The plan wasn’t especially subtle: but slowly, it was assumed, Sunak’s love-bombing would stabilise the Conservative core vote — or at least stem further leaking to the Faragist right. 

In time, as the Conservatives’ ratings rallied at Reform’s expense, Sunak would pivot to Labour; a litany of attacks on tax would follow as the PM pried Keir Starmer’s Ming Vase from his clutches. Some Labour wobbles, if they were reflected in the polls, could lend credence to Tory warnings about a hung parliament and a ruling “coalition of chaos”. The commentariat, tired of writing about Conservative decay and decline, would be the first to note budding green shoots. Successfully restyled as the race’s insurgent force, Sunak would use Starmer’s instinctive caution against him: voters might even begin to buy his “bold plan”-“no plan” dichotomy. 

But how far reality has strayed from Sunak’s original intent. 

The prime minister’s initial gambit, to frontload his campaign with Reform-quashing policy announcements, succeeded first in bolstering the prominence of the party — and, second, in offering Farage a path back to frontline politics. Since the ex-UKIP leader’s shock return, of course, just about everything that could go wrong in the Conservative campaign, has.

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In the months leading up to the election, the only real consistent feature of Rishi Sunak’s political operation was its faith in, well, Rishi Sunak. Every fleeting phase of Sunakian rule was underpinned by an unshaken — and seemingly unshakeable — confidence in the ability of the man leading it. The Conservatives’ reset era, characterised by flailing and at times implausible emphases, was joined up by the prominence of the prime minister. Sunak, depending on his strategists’ vacillating whims, could symbolise freshness, stability, change and/or continuity — whatever the moment was deemed to demand. But this election, newly decamped from their Downing Street bunker, Sunak’s strategists are forced to confront the reality from which they were so blissfully sheltered: Rishi Sunak cannot save the Conservative Party. 

Their unbreakable faith in the great leader was broken, primarily it would seem, by Sunak’s D-Day debacle. What’s followed has been a very public, long-overdue reckoning with political reality. 

This reckoning has been epitomised in recent days by the calls to deprive Keir Starmer of a “super majority”. Long gone are the days when the Conservatives relied on an “80-20” seat strategy: with resources focussed on the party’s 80 most marginal seats, alongside 20 opposition targets. The “super majority” tactic, in short, is no less than an election gambit of last resort — but resorted to just halfway through the campaign. 

It’s not mere loss minimisation — but extinction minimisation.

Rishi Sunak’s impending irrelevance

The months leading into Sunak’s premiership were defined, not just by political “resets”, but by the resultant sense of diminishing authority. Every sepulchral set piece, informed by some new policy focus, served merely to fan the flames of Conservative MPs’ cynicism; today then, we are witness to what happens when a prime minister campaigns sans authority — within the country and their party at large. 

Sunak, simply, is a prisoner of his impending irrelevance. 

The phrase “impending irrelevance”, of course, has a quasi-tautological quality. In politics, once a leader is deemed to be on their way out, attention immediately shifts to their assumed successor. A senior politician whose tenure is coming to a close — has, effectively, already been dismissed. 

Today then, Rishi Sunak is going through the motions of campaigning — but politics has moved on. There are plenty of press conferences, the PM and his surrogates turn up to debates; there’s even been a manifesto launch. But a pungent odour of defeat hangs over every action. The election race, as such, is being dictated by its excruciating inevitability; Sunak’s implicit surrender, epitomised by his “super majority” warnings”, serves merely to vindicate Starmer’s caution. As Sunak stumbles, the Labour leader clutches his Ming Vase ever tighter. 

In this way, the race’s most interesting dynamic is playing out not between Labour and Tory — but between the Conservatives and Reform. The party, remember, that Sunak intended to vanquish in the campaign’s opening days.

Reform, by whatever polling measure, is rising rapidly; and according to YouGov, it has even overtaken the Conservatives to occupy second place. The prime minister, of course, insists that the only “poll” that matters is that conducted on the 4th July; and while that may be true in parliamentary terms — politically, this assessment fails to account for the gravity of Reform’s threat.

The threat the Reform party poses, after 14 years of Conservative government, is at once broader and less perishable than that of Nigel Farage’s previous outfits. Unlike UKIP, Reform has no clearly discernible single issue; instead, party higher-ups have deftly styled the party as a receptacle for those professing all manner of grievances, albeit typically and loosely directed at the Conservative Party. 

In an article in March, I argued that while Tory voters may be slipping into the Reform receptacle with relative ease, these voters may be rather less elastic in their behaviour when it comes to the journey back from Reform to the Conservatives. For any opposition force, polling is its “currency of credibility”; surpassing the Tories, even in a single poll, simply bestows upon Reform real legitimacy as a political force. It’s the sort of legitimacy that drives further media coverage and increased interest among the electorate: that’s the immediate effect of the recent poll “crossover”.

The crossover also has implications for both the Conservative and Reform parties’ election messaging. In the wake of YouGov’s poll finding, Farage now argues that a vote for the Tories is, after all, the Labour-enabling option — especially in the “Red Wall”. By relegating the Tories to third place, Farage can tarnish the party with the same charge of irrelevancy which has so consumed Sunak. If the race really is about choosing an opposition leader, why choose the beleaguered PM — whose days in politics are numbered — over the insurgent Farage, who has committed to leading Reform for a minimum of five years? It is a question that both Farage and the Tories’ “super-majority” line raise — at the latter’s apparent expense. 

Sunak, therefore — an inexperienced and, frankly, ineffective campaigner — is losing his battle with one of the UK’s most battle-hardened, ruthless operators. It’s not an especially surprising outcome. 

But what is striking about Sunak’s short-term failings is their potentially seismic implications for the UK’s political landscape, long-term. In this latest Tory conflict with Farage, there is more at stake than ever: no less than the fate of the Conservative Party. 

Ultimately, Rishi Sunak is on the verge of a political cataclysm unlike anything Britain has seen before. It begs a profoundly significant question: can the Conservative Party, once an election-winning machine, extricate itself the fate of its doomed leader?

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

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