Rishi Sunak survives his first PMQs with ease, but what's next for the Conservative party?

By Peter Cardwell 

After a bruising summer leadership contest and a nightmare autumn suffering from the political and economic effects of the disastrous Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng experiment, calm appears to have returned to the Conservative benches in Parliament.

Prime Minister’s Questions this lunchtime saw an assured Rishi Sunak bat back Sir Keir Starmer’s questions with an ease and élan unseen in Parliament since the days of David Cameron’s clashes with Ed Miliband.  We got detail and rebuttal, policy positions revealed – especially on the toxic issue of fracking – and a more relaxed Rishi Sunak, exorcising the ghost of his slightly stilted speech on his election as Conservative Party leader on Monday night.

The Cabinet reshuffle brought experienced hands back into government, or confirmed them in post.  A good Prime Minister knows he or she needs not just good administrators and governors (Jeremy Hunt, Thérèse Coffey, Michael Gove) but those who know the brutal realities of how politics actually works in this country, and how to target issues before they become problems (Mark Harper, Gavin Williamson, Simon Hart). 

In uniting his party – at least over the next few days as the lower ranks of ministerial offices are reshuffled and MPs set their phone volume to loud – Rishi Sunak appears to have made a good start as Prime Minister.  But he is not naive enough to think there aren’t problems ahead.  Cabinet this morning focused on three issues which will loom large in the political firmament between now and the next election: the economy; Ukraine; and illegal immigration.

Suella Braverman’s re-appointment as Home Secretary has been controversial, leading to a blistering attack from her shadow, Yvette Cooper, in a House of Commons Urgent Question this lunchtime.  But this is a storm I predict the Sunak administration will weather, such is the shared desire of the Conservative-voting public to get illegal immigration sorted.  They don’t come more bullish than Braverman on this issue, although there will be inevitable Cabinet tensions when it comes to filling the one million-plus job vacancies in the UK and where the workers come from.

Perhaps of greater concern amongst conservatives will be planning and house building issues. Despite her friend Liz Truss’s odd attack on the “Anti Growth Coalition” in her Conservative Party Conference leader’s speech, the former Chief Whip Wendy Morton’s question to Sunak about new build homes being “dumped” in her constituency neatly illustrates the likely battle ahead on planning reform.  Sunak’s visionary Downing Street chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith, with whom I worked as a special adviser at what was then the Ministry of Housing, knows the issue inside out and realises how building more homes and turning Generation Rent into Generation Buy is fundamental to the Conservatives’ attempt to reverse their currently disastrous polling.  But planning, almost more than any other issue, has the potential to fray the delicate bonds uniting the Conservative Party currently, and that’s before any Opposition party gets involved.

Labour’s poll lead is strong and their conference in Liverpool a few weeks ago was a quietly confident affair, with few distractions from Starmer and Rachel Reeves’ central message of assurance and responsibility.  It is now up to Rishi Sunak to attempt to restore the Conservatives’ reputation on these matters as calls for an early election grow ever-stronger from almost all Opposition parties.
Peter Cardwell is senior counsel to Atticus Partners and was special adviser to four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations.  He is Political Editor of Talk Radio and the author of The Secret Life of Special Advisers, which is just out in paperback.

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