Rishi Sunak’s Honeymoon Period Could Be Very Short-Lived
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to Croydon University Hospital (Alamy)
Hours after Rishi Sunak was announced as the UK’s 57th prime minister on Monday, one Conservative MP walked into Strangers, the bar frequented by MPs on the parliamentary estate, and said “thank fuck for that”.
The sense of relief among backbench MPs was palpable this week. Not only did Sunak’s unopposed appointment as Prime Minister mark an end to recent uncertainty, but Penny Mordaunt’s eleventh-hour withdrawal also meant the whole affair was done and dusted in just over 72 hours, without the need for a members vote.
Some corners of the party were also very thankful to see the back of talk that disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson could return to the fold, after he too ruled himself out of the race. His backers were adamant last weekend that he had reached the threshold of 100 nominations needed to run, while his opponents feared he would likely win against Sunak in a members vote.
Enjoying his drink in Strangers, the MP said many Conservatives feared Johnson’s return could have spelled the end for the party, which is already languishing in the polls. They said one colleague had lamented: “He’s going to win, we’re fucked, I hope you have another job lined up.”
But, despite his supporters’ claims to the contrary, Johnson’s momentum seemed to slow as quickly as it reappeared. “They knew where their first 50 names were coming from but they couldn’t get the rest, they hoped everyone would fall into line once they got going, but Sunak’s team called their bluff,” the MP added.
Sunak backers are now basking in the relative calm of his new administration, after months of scandal led to Johnson's demise in July, followed by a fractious leadership contest, and the almost immediate implosion of Liz Truss's premiership.
One supporter described this week as the “honeymoon period Liz Truss never had” after the Queen’s death just 48 hours after Truss entered No.10 cut short any chance for celebration.
Another backbench Tory MP said Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Questions had “the most vociferous support” for a Conservative leader they had ever seen in the Commons.
At a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee later that afternoon, usually an opportunity for backbenchers to vent their frustrations and criticise the government, “there was only harmony”, the same MP said.
This optimistic atmosphere was visible in the photos from Sunak’s first Cabinet meeting, which showed an expanded roster of senior MPs smiling and laughing with mugs of tea in hand. In one picture, new party chairman Nadhim Zahawi can be seen embracing Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, one of the many faces of the Johnson administration who Sunak returned to the Cabinet table.
In a sign of party new-found unity, a few were even retained from Truss’s time in No 10. Her close friend Thérèse Coffey was moved from health to environment brief, while James Cleverly kept his job as foreign secretary despite fears by allies that he could be shuffled out for backing Johnson last weekend.
Sunak, however, would do best to enjoy this honeymoon period while it lasts. By pushing the Autumn Statement back to 17 November, he has managed to delay some of the tough decisions that could initially expose cracks in the facade of party unity.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been reportedly taking meetings with some of his predecessors, including architect of austerity George Osborne, who was seen entering No.10 through a back door this week, as he works out how he’s going to fill the estimated £38bn hole in the country’s finances.
Major party commitments such as the state pensions triple lock, increasing benefits in line with inflation, and raising defence spending to three per cent of GDP by 2030 are among those under review. Dropping all or any of these three could lead to significant rebellions by MPs, not to mention public backlash.
Many backbench MPs have publicly and privately expressed their dismay at the idea of scrapping the pensions triple lock, which guarantees that the state pension will rise every year by whichever is highest of inflation, earnings growth or 2.5%
Maria Caulfield said earlier this month, prior to being appointed a health minister by Sunak, that she would vote against any attempt to remove it. Another Tory MP told PoliticsHome it would be a “total electoral disaster” if the triple lock was dropped, as many Conservative voters are pensioners.
But, with inflation currently sitting at 10 per cent, selecting the highest of those three could prove costly. Linking state pensions to wage growth rather than the triple lock would save the government £16bn, according to the Policy Exchange think tank.
Sunak and Hunt also face a battle with the Cabinet if they decide to drop past commitments on raising benefits with inflation. There are some calls for support to be uprated in line with average earnings instead, which could save the government £7bn. Several of those currently attending cabinet however, including Penny Mordaunt, Michael Gove and Grant Shapps, have previously spoken out against such a move.
The government risks some high-profile resignations if it reneges on its pledge to increase defence spending at a time when Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made the issue especially pertinent. Both Ben Wallace, defence secretary, and James Heappey, armed forces minister, have previously suggested they’d consider their position if the promise wasn’t kept.
The new prime minister is also not immune to the threat of internal scandals, which plagued both his predecessors.
High on the opposition's list of attack lines is the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, who was sacked by Truss from the same job just six days earlier over a security breach. In his first Prime Minister's Questions session on Wednesday, Sunak defended bringing her back, but his defences don’t seem to have put the matter to bed.
Starmer responded by suggesting that Sunak had done a “grubby deal” with Braverman, hinting that he’d overlooked her recent sacking in exchange for her support over the weekend, considered a pivotal moment in winning over the right of the party.
One Conservative MP and ally of Braverman even hinted this was the case to PoliticsHome, claiming that circumstances of her return meant it had been orchestrated “on her own terms”.
Hours after Sunak’s PMQs defence, the recently sacked party chairman Jake Berry went on TalkTV to claim that Braverman had committed “multiple breaches” of the ministerial code, and the reports had “really serious” implications. Labour has also capitalised on the brewing scandal and is calling for an inquiry to establish exactly what happened.
Beyond Braverman, however, the opposition is still working out how it’ll take on Sunak in office.
The new PM is believed to be a cause for concern for the party which thrived alongside the chaos of Truss. Despite Labour being ahead in the polls, a recent poll for the i newspaper by BMG found that voters trust Sunak to handle the economy more than Keir Starmer, and believe he would make a better Prime Minister.
One Labour figure admitted that Sunak was a greater challenge for Starmer than Truss because he was a much more “plausible” leader and entered office with significant name recognition thanks to his popular Covid interventions.
While some on the left of the Labour Party, including Nadia Whittome and Richard Burgon, have already referenced Sunak’s immense personal fortune when criticising his leadership, Starmer and his frontbench have seemed reluctant to pursue this line of attack.
Speaking to PoliticsHome’s podcast The Rundown, Tory MP and former cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said Labour would be unwise to take that tact.
“I think it would be a mistake for the Labour Party to major on that point, because it will look churlish, and it will look a bit mean-spirited actually,” he said.
But many in the Labour Party are confident that, with the end of Sunak and Hunt’s happy honeymoon on the horizon, they won’t need to resort to such lines anyway.
One party figure laughed when asked what they thought of the new Cabinet appointments and whether they posed more of a challenge to Starmer and his frontbench team.
“We’ve seen them off once before,” they added.
Additional reporting by Adam Payne and Alain Tolhurst
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