Sunak enters a tense week as Johnson tilts at leadership

Good morning. There are decades when nothing happens. Then there are weeks when decades happen. With unerring timing, my holiday happened to coincide with one of those weeks. My apologies (and thanks!) to Jude, Jen, Miranda, Robert, Chris, Lukanyo, and George for filling in with such aplomb. Some thoughts on some of the aftershocks in today’s note.

Can’t take my eyes off of EU

The best piece of news for Rishi Sunak is that the British economy may be proving more resilient than many had feared. As James Kanagasooriam notes in his smart (and free) newsletter, while the headline polls look near-apocalyptical for the Conservative party, the pattern across five other indicators suggests a defeat more like the result in the 2010 general election, where the Tories failed to win a majority, rather than a rout like the one the Conservatives suffered in 1997.

Of course, Conservative hopes of recovering even to a 2010-scale defeat rest wholly on the British economy showing signs of resilience and the economy recovering more strongly than we currently expect.

Sunak’s next significant political challenge will come if — or, rather, when — he reaches an accord with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, which could happen as soon as tomorrow. His other big problem will not be so immediate, but will be set in motion in the next few days, as we see the beginnings of Boris Johnson making another tilt at the Conservative leadership. The former prime minister intervened in the Brexit dispute yesterday, warning Sunak that it would be a “great mistake” to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, which would allow ministers to unilaterally override the 2020 Brexit treaty with the EU.

Essentially, the only way that Johnson could become prime minister again would be if he was able to reach out beyond his core supporters in the parliamentary party and again become the consensus choice among nervous MPs in marginal seats, as was the case in 2019. Anything that improves Sunak’s prospects of being able to say with a straight face that he remains the best hope for the Tory party is bad news for Johnson, and good news for Sunak.

Can’t take my eyes off of Yousaf

Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf and former minister Ash Regan are the first two candidates to officially declare their candidacies in the Scottish National party leadership election (do read William Wallis’s scene-setter if you haven’t already). Kate Forbes, cabinet secretary for finance and the economy who is on parental leave, is expected to soon announce she is joining the race. Nominations close on Friday, and then a vote among the SNP’s 100,000-plus membership will open at noon on March 13. It closes at noon on March 27.

Although that 100,000 figure is remarkable for a country of Scotland’s size by any modern standard, as Tim Bale explained in the Times last week, the SNP membership otherwise looks pretty much as you’d expect.

Just like the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the membership is largely middle-class, over 40 and male. Just as with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the membership is considerably more liberal than the country as a whole.

Although I have no quantitative evidence for this, my general impression from talking to the party’s rank and file is that members will put a high premium on loyalty. As such I think Ash Regan will struggle, after she quit from her ministerial post in protest against the Scottish government’s proposed gender recognition reforms. The reason for Regan’s resignation is going to be much less important to shaping how members react to her candidacy than the plain fact of it.

Given the party’s social liberalism, I think Kate Forbes, a conservative evangelical who has said that the treatment of the “unborn” is a “measure of true progress”, will struggle also.

Any halfway competent politician running against her ought to be able to make that an election-losing issue. As such, Yousaf looks like the candidate to beat — unless another candidate throws their hat into the ring.

Now try this

I had a lovely time visiting cousins in New York and Philadelphia. I’m indebted to them, both for giving us a place to stay, but also for their suggestion that we try to get rush tickets at the New York Philharmonic.

The beautifully renovated David Geffen Hall really is an amazing piece of work. The cost of that renovation is one of the topics John Gapper touched upon in his excellent column on the economics of orchestras this weekend.

Speaking of John Gapper: his 2011 “Lunch with the FT” interview with Starbucks chief Howard Schultz still has pride of place in the window at Barney Greengrass, a wonderful deli in Manhattan. John’s piece is great reading, but I think Schultz could have been a better dining companion by pointing him towards the latkes.

Top stories today

  • Calls to fire up Scottish business | Scotland’s government should use the departure of first minister Nicola Sturgeon as a chance to reset its troubled relationship with business, said a former adviser to the Scottish National party administration.

  • UK energy support puts companies ‘at competitive disadvantage internationally’ | British businesses are facing an energy-cost cliff edge in April when the introduction of a weaker government support package leads to a jump in bills, trade bodies and analysts warn.

  • AI tools within Reach | The publisher of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express newspapers is exploring whether artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT could help journalists write short news stories, as media organisations look at ways of using AI.

  • Domestic abuse crack down | The most dangerous domestic abusers will be monitored more closely and electronically tagged as part of the government’s new crackdown. Violence against women and girls is now categorised as a national threat for the first time, reports the BBC.

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