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Rishi Sunak should resist a swerve to the right

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After two heavy by-election defeats last week, rightwing Conservatives are twisting Rishi Sunak’s arm to shift further to the right on issues such as migration. Absurd as it might seem for a government that has already changed its prime minister twice since its last election victory, there are mutterings of a possible leadership challenge unless things improve. As Sunak and his team review policies before a general election expected later this year, and a Budget next month, they should resist the pressure. A further rightward swing would be bad for Britain — and for the Conservatives’ own electoral chances.

The past week has undoubtedly been grim for the prime minister. Confirmation that the UK fell into a recession late last year blew up one of his key pledges to “grow the economy”. After losing the formerly Conservative seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood with hefty swings to Labour, the post-2019 government has now lost more by-elections than any since the 1960s.

Rightwing Conservatives are raising alarms over the populist Reform UK party — founded by arch-Brexiter Nigel Farage — which won more than 10 per cent in both seats. Bleeding support on that scale on its right flank, they say, could compound its losses in an election. They are urging Sunak to tack further to the right in cutting taxes, slowing climate goals and hardening his line on “illegal” migration, including the vexed plan to deter cross-Channel migrants by removing some of them to Rwanda.

This would be a mistake. Reform, like Farage’s Ukip before it, is being used largely as a shakedown tool by Conservatives on the right who sympathise with much of its platform. Throwing “red meat” to the right flank never sates but only stimulates its appetite. It is unlikely, in itself, to draw many supporters away from Reform. Sunak has already veered rightward by slowing net zero policies and doubling down on the Rwanda plan — with little impact on Reform’s or the Conservatives’ polling.

Moving further to the right will only convince more mainstream voters that the Conservatives have become a party of extremists. The centre ground is where the next election will be decided — and where the real problems facing the UK are being debated. Most voters’ chief concern is not to see migrants flown to Rwanda. It is for an economic revival and an end to the crisis in public services. Their main gripe is not that the Tories are not rightwing enough, but that they seem to lack the competence or vision to address Britain’s malaise.

The Conservatives have left it horribly late to find ways to persuade voters otherwise. They should be setting out exactly how they plan to cut NHS waiting lists, build more houses and re-equip the military. They should be driving investment-led growth by offering a more coherent policy environment. They should be accelerating, not slowing, the green transition.

Immigration has re-entered voters’ top three priorities in recent years. But, hard as it is, the way to address this is through collaboration with EU partners over irregular migration, and through sensible efforts to reduce legal migration, which is many times bigger.

It seems unrealistic to expect any governing party facing potential electoral defeat to put the national interest ahead of its own. But further tax cuts — which the government is scrambling to promise next month — are clearly incompatible with what should be its priorities. Even many Tory MPs struggle to present them as anything but an electoral bribe. People around Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt like to say both want to “do the right thing” for the UK. In the final months of this government, that, not pandering to the right, ought to be their political mission.

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