Tories Are Finally Rallying Behind Rishi Sunak, But He Still Has Big Problems Outside Westminster
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street (Alamy)
Rishi Sunak has enjoyed what Conservative MPs say has probably been his strongest week since entering No.10 after getting the Northern Ireland Protocol deal over the line, but there remains concern that deep-set problems for the beleaguered party could mean the momentum is short-lived.
While finally resolving the post-Brexit impasse will be chalked up as a major achievement for the PM, the victory is unlikely to make much impact on most voters, who are more interested in their energy bills, hospital waiting times and under-pressure public services. Their attention has more likely been turned to the re-emergence of the government's questionable handling of Covid, thanks to the Telegraph's multi-day exposé of Matt Hancock's WhatsApps from the time that has left some Tory back benchers feeling "spooked".
But at a Tory party away day in Windsor on Thursday at least, MPs cautiously shared a renewed optimism that Sunak could still pull off an unlikely victory at the 2024 general election, despite opinion polls having given Keir Stamer's Labour large, double-digit leads over the Conservatives for almost six months now.
Isaac Levido, the party's chief strategist, told Conservative MPs he believed there was still a narrow path to victory for the Tories, arguing that a significant chunk of the Labour Party's current support was "soft" so could still be clawed back.
In another rallying moment for the party, Tory MPs were united in rage that same day over the news that Sue Gray, the senior Cabinet Office civil servant who conducted the 'Partygate' investigation into lockdown gatherings in Downing Street while Boris Johnson was prime minister, was preparing to join Labour as Starmer's chief of staff.
The fury was not just confined to Johnson's ardent supporters. One senior back bencher who has previously been a great critic of the ex-PM told PoliticsHome: "In a way that’s almost incomprehensible, she [Gray] has managed to trash any reputation she has, and make some well-known Boris sceptics almost feel sorry for him.”
Within the Tory party, reaction to the Northern Ireland deal, now called the 'Windsor framework' has been unexpectedly positive, with very few Conservative MPs publicly criticising the terms of the deal. There is a hope that its success can spark momentum for Sunak in his bid to show the country that his government can deliver.
"It shows that the Conservative party is prepared to be pragmatic and sensible and govern competently," one former minister told PoliticsHome.
It is also hoped that good relations with the EU off the back of the "Windsor framework" for Northern Ireland will improve the chances of a deal between the UK and France on tackling Channel crossings. Sunak is travelling to Paris for a summit with Emmanuel Macron on Friday, and the government is preparing to introduce its long-awaited small boats legislation a week on Monday.
Some even believe that Sunak's impressive coup on the Windsor framework, eliciting concessions from Brussels that had been regarded as impossible, has done major damage to any hopes Johnson had of staging a comeback.
The former prime minister said on Thursday he would find it "very difficult" to vote for the pact when it is put to the House of Commons for approval, arguing it did not do enough to retain UK sovereignty.
However, his remarks, while critical of the deal struck by Sunak, fell short of an explicit rejection, while earlier this week his allies were quoted in The Times as saying he would not vote down the deal when it is put to the House of Commons as he could "see which way the wind is blowing".
PoliticsHome reported optimism among Sunak's allies that Johnson would fall in line to avoid the embarrassment of being part of a very small Conservative rebellion, with one wryly remarking that any such thing now looks like it would amount to "Boris and Mark Francois, which would be brilliant".
One former secretary of state said the high levels of Conservative support for the Windsor framework had effectively put an end to any Johnson ambition of a return to Downing Street. “We have entered a new phase of politics and he doesn’t have a part to play," they said.
Another senior Tory said the Sunak operation had "significantly out-manoeuvred" his rival.
Supporters of Johnson, however, say that the Windsor framework could yet unravel between now and the House of Commons vote, pointing to growing suspicion among staunch Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) that the treaty does not deliver what the government claims, particularly on the role of the European Court of Justice and the ability of the Northern Irish Assembly to veto the imposition of new EU regulations.
"I’m still unclear if that is what has happened here as the legal text of the Windsor framework and the political messaging seem to be at odds with each other," said one friend of the former PM.
Those suspicions will likely have been exacerbated by Jean Claude Juncker, the ex-European Commission President, telling LBC's Andrew Marr the deal leaves Brussels with "more authority than it seems" and that "there is a part of the EU in the deal some in Britain are trying to hide".
Then there is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose approval of the Windsor framework will be key to the government's objective of getting Northern Ireland's institutions back up-and-running.
A DUP rejection of the revised treaty for Northern Ireland would throw the agreement into crisis, and potentially hand Johnson the opportunity he needs to spearhead a significant anti-deal rebellion from the Conservative back benches. PoliticsHome reported on Monday that the ex-PM had privately urged the DUP to be cautious about what Sunak had signed up to.
There is currently a split within the DUP over how to approach the deal, PoliticsHome understands.
While MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley have already rejected it in public, in private leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP Gavin Robison and the party's MLAs are more minded to consider it.
In any case, the party is set to wait several weeks – potentially until as late as early summer – before making a decision, and will seek further reassurances from the UK government in the meantime. The DUP could also push for more funding for Northern Ireland, similar to when it secured £1.5bn from former PM Theresa May as part of their 2017 confidence and supply agreement, though the eventual sum would likely be significantly smaller this time around.
Yet, while some Conservative MPs are feeling more positive about the party's prospects at the next general election, others on the back benches are not quite as convinced.
One former secretary of state pointed out that only around half of the party's MPs actually turned up to the Thursday away day, and that a significant number had "already checked out".
Another ex-Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome that the challenges facing the party were still sizeable, with the cost of living crisis continuing to bite, the National Health Service still facing huge pressures, and industrial action across the public sector set to continue for the foreseeable future.
“There is no doubt Rishi has had a strong week, but we need more weeks like that," they said.
The leaking of over 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent between former health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers during the pandemic to The Telegraph has also served as a sobering reminder to Conservative MPs that the party still hasn't shaken off the scandal of that period.
"The Matt stuff has spooked the back benchers," said one senior Conservative.
The Privileges Committee saying on Friday that breaches of Covid rules at events attended by Johnson would have been "obvious" to the former PM will have only added to that anxiety, as the committee prepares to question Johnson about the lockdown-breaking parties later this month.
The Windsor framework could be a major achievement for Sunak, but the path to victory remains steep.
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