Week-in-Review: If Tory England is dead, Rishi Sunak killed it

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After the electoral humiliation come the recriminations. On 5th July, as the dust settles around their cratered party, senior Conservatives will shift their focus — distracted in recent weeks by a doomed bid to defeat the Labour Party — inward and towards their internal adversaries. 

In truth, the fault-finding and blame-assigning will begin immediately after the exit poll lands at 10.00pm on election night. As results roll in, ministers, ex-MPs and commentators alike will proffer their verdict on the expectedly disastrous outcome. Suppressed bitterness will froth to surface — especially among those (many) candidates forsaken by a vengeful electorate. 

And therein will lie the key question: what caused the electorate to become so wild and unruly that it chooses now to depose of the UK’s “natural” Tory masters? From this line of inquiry will flow a deluge of claims and counterclaims, as Conservatives of all shades ponder their party’s contested past. 

Such soul-searching, it should be stressed, will not come naturally to Tory ranks. 

After the 2019 election, Labour began its post-mortem at a telling pace — as instincts learned through successive defeats assumed control. A council of gloom was set up, composed of high-ranking Labour officials and MPs, to talk glibly about “reconnection”, “broken bonds” and “challenges and opportunities”. (Unfortunately for the Labour Together commission, by the time its report criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s bungled Brexit strategy was published, the membership had already elected its architect as leader.) 

The Labour Party, in short, is rather more used to assessing defeats than seizing on victory. For the Conservatives, the converse is true. The party has held office for 98 of the past 150 years and hasn’t been voted out of power since 1997 — generations of politicians ago. 

Particularly pressing this time around, of course, will be the question of how Toryism squandered the political hegemony foreseen by the 2019 election. Moreover, compared even to 1997-2001, polling suggests the 2024-2029 parliament will be relatively desolate of Conservatives — and sorely lacking any institutional memory of the mistakes made post-1997.

Still, it is paramount that the Conservative Party learns the right lessons from the election — and fast. The collapse of the Tories’ 80-seat “supermajority” and likely Labour landslide victory will, and should, be taken as proof of a volatile electorate — one willing to surmount seemingly insurmountable governments. A volatile electorate, in short, ups the stakes: if the Conservatives play their cards right after the 4th July, the election after next in 2029 could see the party swing back into government. If the Conservatives do not, the electorate might just put the party out of its misery.  

So, will decline lead to fall or to recovery? Or, to put it another way: will the unruly rabble of pretenders competing for the Tory crown after the election be able to prioritise “recovery” over their own interests? 

Indeed, the Conservative Party may well convene a post-mortem inquiry, à la Labour Together’s in 2019, to cast judgement over its loss. But there is no hiding the fact that the primary forum for post-election introspection — for better or worse (worse) — will be the coming leadership contest, triggered by Rishi Sunak’s resignation. 

That contest, simply put, could spiral into a show trial about the Tory party’s tribulations — in which every leadership hopeful serves both as juror and defendant. And as contenders litigate the reasons for their party’s electoral downfall, there will be no shortage of charges to answer and bucks to pass. To list a few: Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, ousting Boris Johnson, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Brexit, Covid, “Partygate”, austerity, Nigel Farage, feral backbenchers, the shift to the right, the shift to the left, the electorate, remainers, “The Blob”, the Supreme Court, the Bank of England, the OBR and Tony Blair. 

In the end, some of these stones, (Brexit, Truss), will likely remain unturned; other rather less pertinent points, (Blair, BoE, Blob), may well be stressed.

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Meet Rishi Sunak, Tory grim reaper

Taken together and all else being equal, the above factors would probably prove enough in our system to lead to a landslide electoral loss. But how do we account for the near wipeout many polls are predicting?

Well, because all else is not equal: Rishi Sunak exists. 

After all is said and done, no factor, policy or politician — after fourteen years of error-strewn government — will have proved as significant in provoking the coming cataclysm as the prime minister. 

As I have written before, political commentators are struggling to distinguish analytically between a “landslide” electoral defeat — like that experienced by John Major in 1997 — and the reckoning foretold by the opinion polls. But here’s my theory: the difference between a landslide loss and an electoral “asteroid” strike, in today’s context, is the influence of one politician: man-meteor Rishi Sunak.

After all, the key theme of the prime minister’s time in Downing Street is that the more the public have seen of him, the less enamoured they have become — to the extent that Sunak has gone from being relatively popular, to one of the most disliked mainstream politicians in recent history, just in the space of 18 months. 

Since he took office in October 2022, the prime minister’s net favourability has declined steadily from a peak of -9 to -56 — the latest of a series of record lows. YouGov’s finding means Sunak is less popular than Jeremy Corbyn was at his lowest ebb: the Labour leader’s worst net score, recorded in the summer of 2019, was -55. 

The fieldwork for this polling was done from 19th-20th June — and therefore may reflect the public’s concern over the Conservative Party’s gambling scandal. Of course, one interpretation of “gamblegate” is that the alleged wrongdoing — unveiled a fortnight from polling day — actually underlines Rishi Sunak’s status as a deeply unlucky, as opposed to incompetent, prime minister.

Sunak’s defenders (read Mel Stride) will say that the PM cannot control the actions of his aides or candidates, including those now facing investigation by the gambling watchdog over alleged bets on election timing. As such, at the BBC’s special Question Time programme on Thursday, Sunak sought to embody the fury of the average voter — speaking of his “immense anger” at the alleged actions of his candidates and aides. But drawn on the possibility of suspending his ex-parliamentary private secretary Craig Williams, also the candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr, or Laura Saunders, his party’s candidate in Bristol North West, Sunak pushed back. 

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The prime minister insisted that the Gambling Commission investigations must be carried out without prejudice. Only after they conclude (i.e. after the election) can any necessary action be taken. 

It is not, however, the Gambling Commission’s job to pick the Conservative Party’s parliamentary candidates. If he was so inclined, Sunak could perfectly properly disavow those facing criticism for their alleged election flutters. Keir Starmer, of course, never misses an opportunity to dispel a Labour candidate on the imprecise grounds of bringing his party into “disrepute”. 

On top of this, there is no disguising the fact Sunak well knows when Williams, his ex-PPS, first learnt of the election date. The same, unsurprisingly, can be said of his director of campaigns, Tony Lee (Laura Saunders’ husband). But still the PM refuses to act, nobly cognisant of independent inquiries — but entirely ignorant of the episode’s raw politics. Accordingly, Labour charges that Sunak is “weak”; and the public agrees. 

Sunak’s alleged weakness has registered because “gamblegate” is merely the latest instance of the prime minister refusing, for whatever reason, to act authoritatively around his party. Until this week, for example, the prime minister had pointedly refused to rebuke his predecessor, Liz Truss — despite doing so forcefully in the summer leadership contest of 2022.

Sunak instinctively recoils from politically tense moments — and, contrary to the PM’s apparent belief, his quiet is not “statesmanlike”. Rather, the public has learned to view Sunak’s spectator-esque stillness as, at best, weakness and, at worst, a dereliction of duty. 

(The PM’s other stand-out moment this campaign, his D-Day debacle, will have hardly helped combat this latter charge).

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It’s Sunak wot lost it

To take a broader view, over the course of his premiership, Sunak has vacillated wildly between strategies — leaping onto any passing bandwagon before eventually careering off course. Sunak is a political nomad, with whom no one can positively identify. Ergo, in the vacuum where the prime minister’s political identity should exist, opponents and a fed-up public project whatever vices they so choose. 

In turn, just as the big moments (gamblegate and D-Day) explain why the prime minister is set to lose the upcoming election by a historic margin, so too do the less headline-worthy details. In the Sky News leaders’ event last week, it was put to the prime minister that he is the “original Brexiteer” — someone who supported the UK’s exit from the EU long before many of the project’s better-known advocates. Sure, the context of the question concerned unfulfilled promises made during the 2016 referendum campaign; but rather than seize the moment by owning the “original Brexiteer” moniker — offered freely to him by Beth Rigby — Sunak baulked. 

“Was I?”, the prime minister responded after a nervous splutter. Then, mere days later, Sunak began boasting of this exact line in response to the first Conservative-Reform “crossover” poll. It’s political plagiarism at its most embarrassingly desperate.

Today, Sunak’s central election strategy is to fear-monger over the prospect of a Labour “super-majority”. It means the Conservatives are too busy telling the British public they are going to lose for any potential political boosts — like falling inflation — to meaningfully register. Furthermore, the escalating rhetoric — with senior Tories warning successively of a “generation of Labour rule”, a “one-party socialist state” and “forever rule” — is beginning to make the initial “super-majority” warning sound increasingly unconvincing and, yes, desperate. 

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Rishi Sunak’s awful, no-good, very bad politics

As the campaign has progressed, therefore, it has become more and more difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Conservative Party’s destruction is Sunak’s doing. Over a year and a half, Sunak hasn’t found a political crisis he couldn’t mismanage; a photo opportunity he couldn’t strew with gaffes; or a reset attempt he didn’t botch and quickly undo. 

To suggest that “Sunak is bad at politics” is nothing new, of course; at this late stage in his political career, it’s nothing less than cliché. But a wider assumption is that Sunak’s foibles won’t have a long political afterlife — and that, like one of his abortive strategies, the PM will soon disappear with no meaningful trace. 

However, not only will the prime minister’s election campaign go down as one of the worst in political history — it will have significant, and likely under-valued, ramifications for the long-term trajectory of the Conservative Party.

After an election defeat, a political party’s recovery flows first from identifying “Point A” — the position of defeat and the factors informing it. Only then, having come to terms with its failure, can a disregarded outfit plot its political journey to “Point B” and victory. 

For the Conservative Party after 4th July, simply put, Sunak’s lingering failure will cloud this already convoluted, even existential process. 

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Why Sunak being ‘bad at politics’ matters, explained via metaphor

The Conservative Party, the most rooted political institution in British history, found itself almost entirely unmoored from the mainstream of public opinion when Sunak took office. But rather than tend to the blighted Tory tree — famously emblazoned across the party’s campaign literature — the cumulative effect of Rishi Sunak’s tenure has been to swing an axe at its trunk. 

In time, the prime minister’s political demolition job will distract from the less perceptible but more significant processes that had already taken hold in the Conservative Party by the time of his stay in Downing Street and his terrible campaign. 

The very slightness of the Conservative Party after the election, teetering on stump status following Sunak’s axe swings, will disguise the rotted roots below. In the months after the 4th July, the remaining parliamentary rump will wonder why the Tory tree isn’t regrowing — despite having sacked its failed surgeon.

It amounts to a political paradox — one which a confused Conservative Party has, frankly, little chance of unpicking post-election. Rishi Sunak, semi-singlehandedly, will deliver a cataclysmic result on the 4th July. But, simultaneously, the Tory malaise runs far deeper than any single premier.

The Conservatives have to spot the rot before they can stop it. Rishi Sunak’s very visible failure — leading the Tories from serious defeat to its possible death — will make that process far harder. 

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

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.