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Rishi Sunak Warned Against Being "Pulled Away" By "Populist" Tories

Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

5 min read

Former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd has urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak not to drift towards the politics espoused by the "populist" Tory MPs ahead of Conservative party conference this weekend.

Rudd held several Cabinet positions including home secretary and work and pensions secretary before stepping down as a Conservative MP in 2019. She said Sunak must not get "pulled away" by Tories who are putting him under pressure to deploy "populist tactics" on issues like the climate in a bid to boost their chances at the next general election.

The former Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye spoke to PoliticsHome after a speech by Home Secretary Suella Braverman in Washington on Tuesday in which she made the case for tearing up the UN refugee convention and argued multiculturalism hasn't worked. The speech has been widely viewed as a preemptive leadership pitch by Braverman to the right of the Conservative party.

Rudd was a leading figure in the moderate wing of the party during her nine-year spell in the House of Commons, serving as co-chair of the One Nation group of self-styled centrist Tories, and resigned from former prime minister Boris Johnson's government in protest against his Brexit policy.

She is one of a number of figures in centre-right British politics who have contributed to a new book titled The Case for the Centre Right, which argues that the Tory party must return to moderate positions for the good of the country and its long-term electoral prospects.

Rudd told PoliticsHome she worried there was a significant chunk of Conservative MPs who are "determinedly still committed" to populist politics, and urged Sunak to ignore them. 

"We are calling for a pushback against the populism which we have seen in so many respects of the Conservative party. Rishi [Sunak] and Jeremy [Hunt] are on a sensible mission, but I'm not entirely confident that they have the support of the whole party," she said.

Former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd

With the Tories having trailed Keir Starmer's Labour Party by large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls since the beginning of the year, in recent weeks the Prime Minister has sought to find dividing lines with the opposition in a bid to give his party a fighting chance at the next election, which must take place by the end of 2024.

Last week, Sunak announced that he would relax some of the government's policies for achieving net zero by 2050, including a decision to postpone the planned 2030 ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars to 2035. Sunak said the move was "pragmatic", but it was criticised by numerous industry figures and a handful of pro-green Conservative MPs.

Rudd doesn't believe the policy changes are "significant", and is confident that the government remains on track to hit its headline goal of achieving net zero by 2050.

However, she believed that a desire to improve the Tories' electoral prospects influenced Sunak's decision, and warned that the Prime Minister must not concede ground to net zero critics on the Conservative backbenches who want the government to go further in rowing back on its environmental commitments.

"I'm all for common sense and ensuring we can reach these targets," she said.

"If he [Sunak] wants to use a bit of political manoeuvring, you can't take politics out of politics.

"But getting on with business and having a business-friendly government, unlike the 'fuck business' [approach] of Boris Johnson and a populist approach, is the difference.

"You've got to stick to that and not be pulled away by the net zero watch group. I'll tell you what they should watch: the floods, the fires."

Rudd said she and other contributors to the book, who include former Tory ministers Rory Stewart, David Gauke and Gavin Barwell, wanted to demonstrate that moderate Conservatism is still an active force, despite falling out of favour with the Conservative party's more right-wing membership in recent years.

"Ultimately, political parties are cyclical," she said.

"We want to show that there is still life in the centrist side of the Conservative party."

Her remarks come amid an ongoing struggle between different groups of Conservative MPs over the direction of the party as it heads in to the next general election.

In August, PoliticsHome reported that many Tory MPs in the modern day One Nation group planned to step up their fight against the right-wing of the Conservative party, which includes groupes like the so-called New Conservative group, and wanted to ensure that a figure backed by the latter like Home Secretary Suella Braverman didn't become the next leader.

Damian Green MP, the group's current chair, told a forthcoming edition of The House Magazine that the group's two key red lines are the 2050 net zero target and the UK's place in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which a number of MPs on the right-wing the Conservative MP want Sunak to scrap in order to help curtail small boats crossings.

He insisted, however, that moderate Conservatives will be most effective by making "a lot of noise behind the scenes", rather than engaging public rows with other Tory factions. “I would rather my friends are in government than in The Daily Telegraph saying the government is doing something outrageous," said the former secretary of state.

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