Mon, 20 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Rishi Sunak Ready To Remind MPs He's In Charge With Tough Autumn Ahead

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak will bring a bolder new approach to his leadership when Parliament returns from recess next week, in a fresh attempt to repair the party's fortunes in order to avoid catastrophic defeat at the next general election.

One Sunak ally told PoliticsHome that much of his premiership has focussed on appeasing MPs in order to restore stability in the Conservative party following chaos caused by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, but that now he intends to be on the offensive much more.

“The next few weeks are going to be about Rishi’s government, not pleasing and stabilising the party. It’ll be: ‘I’m the bloody leader and this is how I want to govern’. A real step change," they said.

Over the summer, Downing Street sought to shift the focus away from July's disastrous by-election defeats and a challenging economy to concentrate on the top concerns of its most vocal MPs. These include how environmental policy impacts drivers and illegal migration, on which strategists believe the party has the edge over Labour.

It has not been a wholly successful endeavour. The so-called "small boats week" in August descended into farce that concluded with the government being forced to evacuate migrants detained on the Bibby Stockholm barge after discovering the potentially-fatal Legionella bacteria. Meanwhile deputy Tory party chair Lee Anderson went off script and told broadcasters that ministers had "failed" to tackle illegal migration.

No 10's summer strategy doesn't appear to have had a significant impact on public opinion either. Labour continues to enjoy steady, double-digit leads over the Tories in most recent polling, as it has done since the start of the year, with the Sky News poll-tracker giving the opposition an average lead of 17%. 

The Prime Minister is now running out of time to launch a meaningful Conservative party fightback before the next general election, which must be called by the end of next year, and his top team knows that the next few months could be crucial. The time period comes with a steady stream of pressure points for Sunak, including his first Tory party conference as Prime Minister, a dangerous by-election in Nadine Dorries' old seat of Mid Bedfordshire, the likelihood of a major Cabinet reshuffle, and the King's Speech laying out the Tories' final legislative agenda before voters across the UK go to the polls. 

Thursday's mini-reshuffle, triggered by Ben Wallace's expected resignation from his post as defence secretary, showed Sunak's renewed bullishness was already underway as he irked some MPs with his appointments. 

By making Grant Shapps the new defence secretary and choosing Claire Coutinho to replace him in the department for energy security and net zero, the PM handed major promotions to two of his closest allies. He was subsequently accused of surrounding himself with "yes people" by members of his own party as well as the opposition. 

Northern Tory MPs in particular were irritated by Sunak's decision to elevate two MPs from the south of England in the wake of Wyre and Preston North MP Wallace's departure, arguing that he had diminished northern representation in Cabinet. 

Some members of the Northern Research Group (NRG) felt that the Sunak government was already short of northern voices since it was first assembled late last year, and noted that Cabinet continues to lack a devoted minister for the region, despite the Prime Minister promising to appoint one during his leadership campaign. 

"A simple question to government: where is the Minister for the North?" complained one backbencher.

But while the new Cabinet appointments received wide attention, one No 10 source said that in terms of avoiding election defeat, the "bigger" story last week was the re-acquisition of two well-respected former Tory advisers, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin and Adam Atashzai, to senior Downing Street roles. 

Njoku-Goodwin, previously a special adviser to former-health secretary Matt Hancock and the one-time housemate of Sunak's chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith, has left his role as chief executive of UK Music to become No 10's new director of strategy. Atashzai, who was an adviser to former Tory prime minister David Cameron, has been brought in to help improve Sunak's political operation.

The shake-up continued on Friday when it was confirmed that Amber de Botton had quit as the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, just ten months after leaving ITV to take up the role. Her surprise departure was accompanied by suggestions among Whitehall insiders that she was unhappy with Booth-Smith's decision to bring his close friend Njoku-Goodwin into the fold.

The first big battle Government whips are bracing themselves for when Parliament kicks back into action next week is the Energy Bill, which is likely to face amendments from net zero sceptics on the Tory backbenchers, but No 10 is confident that the government will avoid any significant rebellion.

An expectation management operation is also underway by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) over the looming Mid Bedfordshire by-election, expected to take place in mid-October. Senior Conservatives insist that they will probably lose the constituency, despite having a majority of nearly 25,000 and the real prospect of the anti-Tory vote being split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, meaning that even if they lose vote-share, they could still win overall. "All it needs is either Labour or the Liberal Democrats to not look credible, and all the votes will go to the other one," one Tory told PoliticsHome.

November is shaping up to be a pivotal month for the Prime Minister. He is preparing to carry out a wider Cabinet reshuffle at the start of the month that will amount to "major reset", with more young and up-and-coming MPs akin to Coutinho expected to be given ministerial jobs in order to present a fresher face of the Tory party. 

That will be closely followed by what is likely to be a highly "political" King's Speech, in which the Conservatives are expected to set out major dividing lines with Labour ahead of the general election campaign. 

Pressure on Sunak to deliver policy ahead of a national vote will only intensify through the autumn if opinion polls remain against the Conservatives. 

Underlining the importance of the next few months for Sunak is the unusual timing of this year's political party conferences, which has worried many Tory backbenchers. For logistical reasons, Labour's conference in Liverpool is taking place after the Tories' own in Manchester, giving Starmer the opportunity to appear "prime ministerial" by having the last word in his conference speech. 

Whether or not Sunak's latest "step change" this autumn will be enough to significantly change his party's electoral prospects, which remain as gloomy as ever, is the real question.

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