Can Rishi Sunak Turn Tory Fortunes Around With Boris Johnson Looming Like The Ghost Of Christmas Past?
Rishi Sunak by a Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street (Alamy)
Rishi Sunak is heading into the Christmas break with the clock ticking on how much time he has to avert a disastrous general election, which according to current polling, could see the Conservatives obliterated.
The government must set a date to go back to the public before the end of 2024, which many expect them to do that spring, meaning 2023 could be Sunak's only full calander year in office. Mutterings in some wings of the party are that he may not even last that long if they try to reinstate Boris Johnson in a last-ditch pitch for victory.
Conservative MPs are left wondering whether he can turn his party around and pull of an unlikely victory – and if so, how?
A combination of the Johnson "partygate" scandal, Liz Truss's calamitious "mini-Budget", and the ongoing cost of living crisis has seen the Tories fall way behind Keir Starmer's Labour in the opinion polls, with most companies giving the opposition party big, double-digit leads like those not seen since the run-up to New Labour's landslide in 1997.
The consensus in Westminster – including among a significant number of Conservative MPs – is that Labour will probably win a general election for the first time since 2005 when voters next go to the polls, with the prevailing view being that the mountain facing the Tories is just too big to climb.
Numerous Tories say the summer will be a key moment as the party prepares for an election, because many will wait to see how the party performs in May's local elections before deciding whether to stand to keep hold of their seats in a general. If results are as bad as feared, some MPs could decide to cut their losses now, which will not paint a picture of a party on the rebound under Sunak.
Conservartive Party headquarters (CCHQ) which is responsible for elections, had asked MPs to state by 5 December whether they intended to seek re-election leading numerous MPs, including high-profile Tories like former Cabinet ministers Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock, to announce that they would be quitting Westminster politics.
But many who told CCHQ they planned to stand again actually intend to make their decision mid-way through next year, PoliticsHome understands. An ex-government minister who falls into this category said "it's all over" for the party's hopes of avoiding defeat at the next general election if the polling numbers haven't shifted signicantly by the summer.
Downing Street is hopeful that the opinion polls will gradually narrow in the coming months and warn Conservative MPs against seeking a new leader again if they don't. "It's Rishi or nothing," one No 10 source said.
While polling conducted in mid December appeared to show that the Labour lead was starting to shrink, the opposition is still a very sizeable distance ahead.
There is a belief among some Tories that the huge Labour lead is soft and that many voters, unconvinced by Labour leader Starmer, can be persuaded to return to the Conservatives in time for the next general election. Recent research has found that Sunak is a relatively popular leader whose main challenge is not endearing himself to the general public, but repairing the severely-damaged brand of his party.
While Sunak has brought stability to Westminster, Conservative MPs have started to question what exactly he stands for beyond repairing the economy. PoliticsHome reported this month that the Prime Minister is expected to spell out his vision for the country in greater detail early in the new year, though a No 10 source denied that a major "big vision" speech was being planned.
There is hope in No 10 that inflation will have started coming down by the time the spring budget comes around on 15 March, giving Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt more fiscal headroom to work with.
But none of that can convince the most pessimistic in the Conservative party that the election isn't already lost.
One Tory source told PoliticsHome that the party was not only destined for defeat, but actually needed a few years in opposition to rebuild. “It’s like a bad marriage," they said. "You want to stay together for the kids, and for society, but really you just need six months apart.”
Despite having changed prime minister twice since their 2019 general election victory, Conservative MPs do not rule out the possibility of doing it a third time if Sunak does not turn it around, and the name that looms over the party like the ghost of Christmas past is Johnson.
The former prime minister, ousted by his party earlier this year, launched a failed attempt at a comeback in October after Truss resigned, warned by dozens of unsupportive Conservative MP that he would not be able to unite the party.
However, two senior Conservative MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome, including a former Secretary of State, said they could still imagine a scenario whereby desperate Tory MPs, as a last throw of the dice, bring Johnson back to give them the best possible chance of keeping their seats.
One, a former Secretary of State, said many Conservative MPs still regarded Johnson as their electoral "gold dust".
The other, a former minister, said: “Conservative MPs are not going to push for a leadership challenge now. But if by September nothing has changed, then who knows. Boris is still around, isn’t he?”
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