Tory MPs Fear Concrete Crisis Confirms "Nothing In Britain Is Working"
Prime Minister Rsihi Sunak in India after a tough first week back after summer recess (Alamy)
Downing Street's hope that Rishi Sunak would kick off the new parliamentary term on the front foot has been short-lived thanks to the unfolding concrete crisis, and Conservative MPs fear the saga plays into a fatal narrative about crumbling Britain.
On a balmy evening this Wednesday, a crowd of Labour MPs were gathered merrily at the Parliamentary estate's Thameside terrace bar. Among them was Labour leader Keir Starmer, who three days into the first week back after the long summer recess probably couldn't have dreamt of a better start to a crucial autumn period.
Two days earlier, Starmer carried out his long-awaited Shadow Cabinet reshuffle without triggering a party civil war, despite the fact that his decision to demote highly-rated Labour MP Lisa Nandy prompted minor grumbles that he was marginalising the party's "soft left". Ultimately though, complaints about a "Blairite" takeover were confined to the fringe, and Labour MPs were generally pleased with the new-look team.
That the week's headlines were dominated by allegations of Tory culpability in a nationwide concrete scandal that resulted in the closure of a number of schools, plunging the government into yet another crisis, was an unexpected added bonus for Labour.
PoliticsHome reported on Wednesday that the risk posed to public sector settings like schools and hospitals by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) had been identified by Labour in part of its planning for government as a potential early crisis that could hit a Starmer administration. Party insiders had expected the Conservatives to continue kicking the can on the issue and let a possible Labour government deal with it in the future. Instead Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and education secretary Gillian Keegan were already under fire over the saga.
Numerous Conservative MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome expressed personal relief that RAAC had at least not impacted a school in their constituencies, but said they feared the episode would only fuel a wider feeling across the country that, as one Tory back bencher put it: "Britain is not working".
A Conservative former minister said that while they had "sympathy" with the government on the concrete issue because it is an entrenched Europe-wide problem, they feared the general public were unlikely to see it like that. Instead they accepted that most people will view the crisis as the latest example of a country that seems to be falling apart around them – whether it be crumbling schools, unreliable trains, airport chaos, water companies pumping sewage into rivers, or people struggling to see their GP and dentist.
“The context, whether we like it or not, is that nothing in Britain is working. Even when there is good news, people think it’s down to events rather than government action," the MP said.
The timing will have been particularly annoying for the embattled Prime Minister, who according to his allies was ready to head into autumn on the front foot and build momentum in the final year before a general election, which must be called before the end of 2024. In the next few months, Sunak will deliver his first Conservative party conference as leader, face two tricky by-elections in England, and set out the final legislative agenda of the current government in the King's Speech. He is also widely-expected to carry out a Cabinet reshuffle in early November.
Speculation of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle has lingered since before the summer recess. The fact that Sunak hasn't already revised his top team has frustrated some Conservative MPs, who fear that he is dithering and risks drifting through autumn and into the winter without a major shake-up.
One back bencher said that whips had repeatedly used the prospect of a reshuffle as a way of encouraging Tory MPs to stay in line, but that the longer Sunak waits to get on with it, the less effective any threat becomes. “It’s starting to look less like party management, and more like weakness," they told PoliticsHome.
Matt Warman, the Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness, conceded on this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that the Tories had "a lot of work to do" between now and the next general election to restore the public's "faith" in them to deliver, but insisted that it was still possible.
"The government has to demonstrate that it is able to deliver on the basics, whether that is gripping things like RAAC, or those top five priorities that Rishi Sunak laid out and also say: ‘here's what we will do next’," he said.
In private, however, many Conservative MPs are more critical of the Sunak administration, complaining that this week's chaos – which included education secretary Keegan being recorded by ITV saying she had done a "fucking good job" when it comes to the concrete saga while others had "sat on their arse and done nothing" – had made the government look like it was not in control.
"It is all going very well isn’t it?," one seasoned Tory complained sarcastically. "He clearly doesn't have the ability to change the narrative or take control."
A former Cabinet minister said bluntly that the Prime Minister "needed to get a grip".
Conservative MPs remain largely united behind the Sunak, but more weeks like this one are likely to test their patience.
Additional reporting by Tom Scotson.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe