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The Tory right has one last job for Rishi Sunak

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Do you want the good news or the bad news, prime minister? The good news is that your rightwing rebels have given up on removing you as leader. The bad news is that they are going to spend the remaining months making sure you are blamed for the looming defeat. 

Amid the unremittingly dire results of last week’s local and mayoral elections, this week’s admission by Tory plotters that it was no longer viable to remove Rishi Sunak before the election must have seemed a rare moment of relief. But it was less a surrender to the calls for unity than a recognition of reality: the rebels did not have the numbers to remove him, a replacement candidate or indeed any serious prescription for how to turn things around if the other two conditions did not apply.

But the Tories’ radical right flank — an unholy alliance of libertarians and Faragists — has not given up the attacks on the man they now accept will lead their party into the election. Suella Braverman, the former home secretary whose presence in that role is a stain on Sunak’s leadership, declared: “The hole to dig us out is the PM’s”. David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, was similarly on message: “Genuine Conservatives must . . . prepare for disaster . . . wait for the flood. And then, as it recedes, see what we can grow on the new fertile land left behind.”

The malcontents no longer seek Sunak’s head and they know it is too late for a policy shift to turn things around. Their sole contribution is the politics of “I told you so”; their focus on establishing a narrative of sellout that helps capture the party after defeat. 

The cheek is something to behold. This is the same Tory right that worked so hard to impose on the country the vote-shredding premiership of Liz Truss, the episode when the Conservatives definitively lost the electorate. These MPs have spent the last years focused not on improving voters lives, public services or (for all the posturing) economic growth — Brexit proved that. Instead, they have scorned the centre-ground from which most elections are won and pursued an ever narrower core vote strategy, which might now be necessary as they lose votes to the Faragist Reform UK.

They fail to accept that the centre-ground has been lost not because the government was not “genuinely conservative” but for the more obvious reason that it was not genuinely competent — and after 14 tempestuous years people feel worse off. 

And yet, even as they back down from a pointless leadership challenge, the rebel right cannot help itself. Unwilling to strike, they continue to wound. They are no longer fighting for the election but are engaged solely in making mainstream Tories, primarily Sunak, own the defeat. (As an early backer of both Brexit and Boris Johnson, the prime minister is hardly exempt from blame, but he is at least attempting to run a serious government.)

Sunak’s antagonists are fortified by spurious polling and death-cult hyperbole, while their arguments are amplified by the support of all the most important Conservative media outlets — notably the increasingly nihilist Telegraph, Mail and GB News. Aspiring leaders push purist alternative policy manifestos demanding a lurch to the right they know can no longer change the election outcome, but which might burnish their own credentials.

In the battle for the future control of the party, their narrative holds that Sunak has been insufficiently conservative, not tough enough on immigration, kept taxes and spending too high and is too sympathetic to the net zero agenda. 

Such obsessions see them banging on about “completing” Brexit, which voters were rather hoping was done and most have concluded was a mistake. On immigration, where there is a real issue to address, the right have spent months telling voters that they are being betrayed by the government. In what way is this a vote-winner? What it does allow is for them to push their own bugbear: leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, a policy that they have convinced themselves will revive Conservative fortunes. 

This analysis is a major misreading of the 2019 election win as a vote for radicalism — in reality it was a vote for stability after the upheaval of the Brexit rows, for spending on public services and left-behind regions. The Tories now languish not because they were too centrist, or for that matter too right-wing. It is because, in their self-indulgence, rule-breaking, constant infighting and off-beam obsessions, they are failing on the issues that matter to voters.

That the right’s charge sheet against Sunak is a travesty of the truth is beside the point. The narrative of betrayal by an enemy within is alluring. And the critics are not entirely wrong about Sunak’s political shortcomings or record of delivery. But his strategy of arguing that the economy has turned the corner has always been the only viable one, even if it too may be doomed.

Sunak has secured the privilege of leading his party towards the sound of gunfire but those who have done most to destroy it are among the snipers. While the more serious Tories fight to minimise their likely losses and keep at least a foot on the centre ground, the right are fully engaged in making the prime minister the fall guy.

They may be about to lose an election, an argument and many colleagues, but this is no longer a fight over tactics. It is a fight over blame and in that cause the right believe that our hapless premier has one last service to render.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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