As Rishi Sunak takes the keys to No. 10, can he steady the ship?
By Joshua Taggart
After a very busy few days for Conservative MPs of briefing, counter-briefing, and general political intrigue, Rishi Sunak was the only candidate to formally gain the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs during the latest Tory leadership contest, making him the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He will shortly be called to Buckingham Palace, where King Charles III will perform his ceremonial duty and ask Sunak to form a government in his name.
In Westminster, the atmosphere is intense, and the contrast between the summer’s events and today could not be clearer. With Boris Johnson surprising everyone by bowing out early and Penny Mordaunt falling short of the mark, Sunak was the clear winner – an expected outcome, but a momentous one nonetheless as Sunak becomes the first British Asian Prime Minister.
Sunak is inheriting a grim picture. Inflation is at almost double digits, there have been strikes across a variety of industries from universities to train networks, and his own Party has inflicted severe wounds upon its own reputation. After a brutal leadership contest in the summer (where he lost to Liz Truss), followed by a disastrous 45 days in power for Liz Truss which included an unfinanced budget and a spectacular U-turn on her low-tax agenda, the Tories are lagging badly behind Labour in the polls, cloaked in an air of a chaotic, squabbling cabal.
His first task will be to assemble a new Cabinet (the Rishuffle, as we’ve all taken to calling it in the Westminster Bubble). As both a nod to party management and economic stability, some positions are likely to be safe, including the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. Others, such as Suella Braverman, could quickly find their way back into government in an effort to appease the right and unite the Party. Yet, deft personnel management can only get you so far and there are still clear divides within the Party on a variety of issues, from taxation to Net Zero to defence spending.
Sunak’s leadership pledges in July were clear: he wants sound economic policy to be the foundation of the Conservatives’ approach, while committing further to the support of Ukraine and upholding the 2019 manifesto pledges of Net Zero and Levelling Up. Regardless of his focus on the 2019 electoral mandate the party received, some of the parliamentary party’s more eccentric voices are already demanding a general election, much like the Labour Opposition. Given that such an outcome would likely see many of the current crop of Conservative MPs disappearing to their constituencies never to return, it seems unlikely a great many will jump at a swift return to the polls. Sunak will have to balance the deep splits in the Party against the deeply entrenched ambition (and ego) of his colleagues – not least the Member for the Dominican Republic who may yet seek to utilise his lingering influence over the Party.
However, to be electorally successful again, the Conservative Party must unite and unite behind their new Prime Minister. With Labour over 25 points ahead in the polls and over two-thirds of the country believing that they will win the next general election in 2024, a continuation of the Tory psychodrama can only leave one outcome. Instead, if they can keep their divisions under control, expect a shoring up of their vulnerable positions in the Red Wall and a general rebuilding of the Conservative Party brand – stability, fiscal discipline, and tackling the cost of living will be central priorities.
The decisive factor will be whether Prime Minister Sunak can command the respect and cooperation of his Conservative colleagues. If they can’t pull it together for the next two years and do their best to turn the ship away from the iceberg in their path, this could be a tragedy for Conservatism of Titanic proportions. However, if the gamble of a new leader pays off and the Labour Party wilts under the pressure of an ‘open goal’ electoral victory, Sunak may be able to stabilise British Conservatism, use his 80-seat majority, survive the winter, enact the key tenets of the 2019 manifesto and make us all forget about that bizarre, 45-day hangover we just had. Cheers to that.