UK Conservatives Look Beyond Sunak Government – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

Rishi Sunak this week celebrated the end of his first month as UK prime minister, yet many of his fellow Conservative MPs are already looking beyond his time in office to the next leader and the party’s future direction.

Sunak has not had the disastrous start to his leadership that Liz Truss did. Nevertheless, he has already had one resignation from his top team in the form of Sir Gavin Williamson, the Cabinet Office minister, while two others — Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Suella Braverman — are “on the rocks.”

While it is by no means certain that Labour will win a big majority at the next election, the odds are growing that the party will emerge with the largest number of MPs in Westminster. This is encouraging a growing number of Conservative MPs to announce their imminent retirement from politics, while others think ahead to being back in opposition for the first time since 2010.

At this early stage, the Conservatives’ future direction remains unclear, but the odds are high that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson will play a significant role in the party’s future. While Johnson failed to become prime minister for a second time last month, his political shadow looms large over Sunak’s government.

More than a dozen ministers in Sunak’s Cabinet are holdovers from Johnson’s governments from 2019 to 2022, including a significant number who were in “political exile” under Truss: Raab, Michael Gove, Oliver Dowden and Ben Wallace occupy the same roles as in Johnson’s last Cabinet.

Other ministers who served in Johnson’s top team and are now in new Cabinet jobs include Sunak himself, James Cleverly, Grant Shapps, Gillian Keegan, Therese Coffey, Steve Barclay, Nadhim Zahawi, Penny Mordaunt, Robert Jenrick and Braverman.

Moreover, Johnson’s influence extends over Sunak’s government in a deeper way that was not true of Truss’s. In his first speech as prime minister, Sunak highlighted Johnson’s “incredible achievements” and insisted that “he will deliver on the promise of the (2019) manifesto.” Clearly, Sunak sees the success, or failure, of his government resting to a large degree on realizing the vision that Johnson espoused at the 2019 election.

While Sunak’s government may not implode in the same way as his predecessor’s, he has a major political hill to climb, and his plan seems to be to try to last the course until 2024 before holding a general election. A 2023 ballot cannot be ruled out, but like previous prime ministers who took over in midterm, he will want to establish himself before going to the polls.

Sunak is well aware that he must now hit the ground running in a perilous political environment where public opinion is skeptical of his government. The fact that he will probably not enjoy a “honeymoon” in Downing Street is shown by a YouGov opinion poll last month which found that 56 percent want an early general election. Sunak knows that no party in modern political history has won five elections in a row, and he must attempt to do this in the context of a divided Conservative Party, high inflation, increasing interest rates, and cuts in government spending.

Sunak thus faces a huge challenge, and in a context where Johnson — and, indeed, the large number of ministers leaving office last month — could become significant political thorns in his side. Johnson remains highly popular among Conservative members, more so than the new prime minister, and it is plausible that he may again seek the leadership, especially if Sunak is seen to “fail” by party members.

In the past century, four people have served second periods in Downing Street after losing an election. It absolutely cannot be ruled out that Johnson might be the fifth to achieve this feat.

What makes Johnson’s presence potentially potent is that he was turfed out of Downing Street not through the loss of a national ballot but by an internal party vote that may be regretted by increasing numbers of Conservative members if Sunak underwhelms in office.

For Johnson to have a serious shot at a comeback, it may also be necessary for a wider slice of Conservative MPs and the electorate as a whole to become less critical of his legacy from 2019-2022. For instance, an Ipsos survey released over the summer showed almost half the UK public believes he did a bad job as prime minister, the worst rating of any postwar leader.

Taken together, this is why Sunak’s prime ministerial inheritance is so potentially politically poisonous for him. He has framed his future success through the lens of the party’s 2019 win, and this could come back to haunt him, with Johnson possibly becoming a key critic.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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