Rishi Sunak this week warned his cabinet that Britain faced “a challenging period” this winter, but as the country’s problems pile up, the new prime minister is also facing a serious test of his own political authority.
With opinion polls still giving Labour a 20-point lead, a fatalistic mood has fallen on many Tory MPs, some of whom privately claim the next election is already lost; others are looking to a new career outside Westminster.
“We’re in survival mode,” said one former minister. Another former cabinet member said drily: “I expect there will be a big exodus at the next election — but not all of my colleagues will standing down voluntarily.”
Sunak did not give the impression of someone ready to throw in the towel on Wednesday, however, as he sought to raise the morale among Tory MPs with a rousing defence of his new economic plan.
His allies hope that after the tough medicine in last week’s Autumn Statement, the Conservatives can fight a 2024 election with the economy nosing out of recession and with the message: “Don’t let Labour ruin it.”
But Sunak’s frank admission about the tough winter ahead for Britain also applies to the grim immediate prospects for his government, with problems on a number of fronts, including inside his cabinet.
On Wednesday, Downing Street said that a prominent employment lawyer, Adam Tolley, would examine allegations of bullying against Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister.
Raab has promised to “thoroughly rebut and refute” two official complaints he is facing — one from his time as foreign secretary and another from a previous spell as justice secretary.
But the claims hanging over the deputy prime minister are a significant distraction and follow the resignation of Gavin Williamson from Sunak’s cabinet, also after bullying allegations.
Sunak also reappointed Suella Braverman as home secretary, days after she resigned for sharing cabinet secrets on a private email, raising questions about his claim to be running a government of “integrity and professionalism.”
But the prime minister faces much deeper problems, reflecting the fact that he is trying to hold together a fragile coalition of MPs, many of whom are demoralised, in a time of recession, high inflation, high taxes and crumbling public services.
After the party gave MPs until December 5 to say whether they intend to contest the next election — a move intended to help the party allocate seats after a boundary review — many are expected to call it quits.
The announcements by Chloe Smith, the 40-year-old former cabinet minister, and Will Wragg, the 34-year-old chair of the Commons public administration committee, on Wednesday that they were stepping down at the next election was a sign of the times.
Some Tory MPs think that between 50 and 80 colleagues out of a total of 356 will declare they are stepping down in the coming days. “People are talking to headhunters,” said one former minister.
This creates a swath of MPs who no longer have anything to lose and could decide to spend part of their final two years at Westminster voting with their conscience, rather than obeying orders of party whips.
There is another potential problem. “If Barclays come along and say to someone ‘there’s a job here, but we need you now’, that MP might decide to quit immediately. Then you have a load of by-elections,” said one senior Tory.
On the upside for Sunak, he appears to be up for the fight. His performances at prime minister’s questions — primed by veteran cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Oliver Dowden — are combative.
Gary Streeter, a Tory MP first elected in 1992, said Sunak would take a lot of the bitterness out of the party’s politics. “We will still have crises — but they will be ordinary crises, not existential ones,” he said.
MPs loyal to Sunak insisted the mood in the party had stabilised and that a historic fifth consecutive election victory was possible. They look forward to a spring Budget that will set out measures for bolstering growth.
But even “ordinary” crises will pose a serious test for Sunak. For many Tory MPs on the right, the raising of taxes to the highest level for 70 years is a badge of shame for the party and has left them on edge.
So too has the suggestion by chancellor Jeremy Hunt that the “vast majority” of trade barriers with the EU should be removed over time.
Tory Eurosceptics wonder what concessions on Brexit Sunak and Hunt might make to achieve that objective, even if Downing Street insists it will not deviate from Boris Johnson’s “bare bones” trade deal with the EU.
Meanwhile, Tory MPs from southern seats in the so-called “blue wall” are in revolt over government plans for “top down” targets for new housing on green fields.
The Liberal Democrats demonstrated in last year’s Chesham and Amersham by-election victory the potency of local planning issues. Tory MPs in Surrey and Kent are anxiously looking over their shoulders.
And in a sign of north-south tensions in the party, Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and a former levelling up secretary, said abandoning the proposed targets was “insane” and would be economically and socially “disastrous”.
While Sunak looks to prop up Tory MPs in the southern heartlands, the party’s working class “red wall” seats in the Midlands and the north that it took from Labour at the 2019 election look increasingly vulnerable.
One former minister in a northern seat said: “It feels like we are moving from a position of offence — where we targeting a fifth election victory — to one of defence. It feels like we are prioritising defending seats with big majorities rather than defending or winning seats in the red wall.”
A southern Tory MP said the disastrous Liz Truss administration had probably been the final straw for the party. “A period in opposition could give us a chance to collect or ideas and strengthen our arguments after all the infighting,” he said.