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Rishi Sunak’s ‘Italian Job’ moment

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Rishi Sunak’s Conservative critics are not wrong. The prime minister is leading their party over a cliff. The only flaw in their analysis is the failure to see that their demands for extreme solutions are only speeding the journey towards the edge.

Those on the Tory right who have rebelled against Sunak this month over his Rwanda policy and who publicly or privately insist he has to go have a painfully simple analysis. The party has ceased to be sufficiently conservative and is especially weak on immigration. 

In this narrative the inevitable and terrible Tory defeat in the approaching general election is effortlessly explained in one figure: the up to 10 per cent of voters who claim they intend to vote for Reform UK, the successor to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. Simply add those voters back on to the Tory pile with a new, robust leader and bish-bosh, the party is back in the race.

That analysis has already been shredded. The pollster YouGov noted that most Reform voters would not return to the Tories. A question pitting Sunak against a mythical perfect leader was widely derided. Sunak has enjoyed a few days of ceasefire. But his enemies have pencilled in two anticipated by-election disasters on February 15 for a resumption of hostilities — especially if defeat in one, Wellingborough, is accompanied by a strong Reform showing.

There are only two cases for plotting against the prime minister: the desperation of individuals who believe clawing back some of the core vote will save their own seat, or apportioning blame ahead of the next leadership contest. 

The critics are not entirely wrong to highlight immigration. The public does not believe the Conservatives have a grip on the issue. But a more careful scrutiny of polling data tells the larger tale that the public doesn’t believe the government has a grip on anything.

The chart showing the government’s public approval rating over this parliament looks like the path of a deep-sea submersible sinking towards the ocean floor with each change of leader. After the chaos of the Truss premiership, Sunak enjoyed a brief honeymoon as his MPs waited to see if he could pull the party up to his popularity or if it would drag him down. The answers are now in. 

A recent survey by the research company More in Common asked disgruntled Tory voters why they had abandoned the party. Immigration is high up but it sits alongside a worsening NHS, failure to deliver on the promise to “level up”, a belief it has “damaged the economy” and a catch-all “they’re incompetent”. In a recent YouGov poll Labour leads in every age group under 70.

Across the piece, voters seem to have concluded the Conservatives have no answers to the problems they face and Sunak’s critics are deeply implicated in years of chaos and self-indulgence. Facing a pandemic does not get them off the hook. This government has squandered an 80-seat majority while the nation watched public services decline, inflation bed in, investment stagnate and the promised Brexit bonus dematerialise. Sunak may be driving now but the journey to the edge is the work of years.

It is true that Sunak’s leadership has been called into doubt by wobbles over strategy in the second half of last year. But there is no “with one bound we are free” solution. Nor is a hidden hero waiting to save the party, merely a crop of mediocre ministers and ex-ministers whose ambition outruns their abilities. Such widespread disaffection cannot be addressed without a time machine. When the country loses faith in the team it does not trust them to deliver even policies it might support. The voters have stopped listening even when there is a case to make.

But what is clear is how to make it worse. A fourth leader in four years is one way. So is loudly telling the voters you wish to win back that you have failed them in every way. Drawing attention away from the relatively sober figures in the Sunak cabinet to the comically underperforming ministers who led the caucus for Truss is unlikely to help. If we choose as our cliff metaphor the teetering vehicle in the final scene of The Italian Job, this is the Tory equivalent of rushing to the wrong end of the bus and tipping it over.

Truss, meanwhile, is about to launch her Popular Conservatism movement, not an overt challenge to Sunak but an initiative that just happens to feature many of those most contemptuous of his leadership. Increasingly the Tories are talking only to themselves and about themselves. This is less policy debate than political necromancy.

While Sunak may not be able to head off defeat, he can still limit its scale. His original strategy — rebuilding a reputation for competence — has always been the only credible path. This week’s moves to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland are an example. A few months without feuding would also allow the focus to shift to a more forensic examination of Labour’s sketchy agenda.

Above all it is what the country deserves; an administration that uses its remaining months to govern with dignity and competence, which spends its money wisely and in which those who have led the party to the cliff edge slink low in their seats. Such self-restraint looks unlikely, but it is the best chance of avoiding a total Tory wipeout. More important, after years of chaos they owe the nation at least a few good months on their way out. 

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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