Will Sunak be able to keep the hardline Tories happy?
Rishi Sunak has, by and large, achieved one key goal during his first few months inside No 10: keeping his own MPs quiet. After all the incredible Tory turmoil and psychodrama of the year gone by, most backbenchers have been desperate for a period of dull, steady stewardship.
But there are now signs of agitation on the Tory right. Some are openly furious about the possibility that plans to remove all EU law from the statute books by the end of 2023 could be delayed or watered down in the face of challenges in the Lords.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned Mr Sunak not to “let down electors” on Brexit opportunities, while fellow Brexiteer David Jones said the PM’s personal authority was based on the retained EU law bill being “completed successfully” – claiming that “the future of the party” was at stake.
The U-turn over the Channel 4 privatisation has angered a few Boris Johnson loyalists. It left Nadine Dorries incandescent with rage. Responding to the announcement that the Sunak government wouldn’t be selling it off, she said it made it “almost impossible to face the electorate”.
Ms Dorries fumed that Mr Sunak was dumping the Johnson agenda of levelling up, social care reform, and the online safety bill – arguing that “three years of a progressive Tory government being washed down the drain”.
Other Tories on the right are reportedly drawing up plans to amend the legislation planned as a crackdown on migrant boats coming across the Channel. Fearing Mr Sunak won’t go far enough to stop legal appeals, they are thought to have the European Court of Human Rights in their crosshairs.
Liz Truss allies have warned Mr Sunak not to scrap her plan to boost free childcare, amid reports that No 10 has quietly shelved reforms. And there is the low grumble about the need for tax cuts and growth by a few who haven’t entirely given up on Trussonomics.
Then there are the polls. There is some anxiety that Labour’s lead has hardened into a sustained advantage after the brief Sunak “bounce” fail to spark much of a revival.
Mr Johnson is waiting in the wings if the Tories receive a drubbing at the May local elections. A close ally of the ex-PM, Lord Greenhalgh, has predicted that he “will return” to No 10 before the end of 2023.
Team Sunak will be slightly more worried by the activities of another Tory peer. Lord Cruddas’ Conservative Democratic Organisation is pushing for a rule change so that any MP backed by only 15 per cent of their colleagues can run for leadership.
The grassroots Tory group made up of Mr Johnson’s allies is set to launch a “Momentum-style” campaign to hand members full power of the selection of candidates.
Mr Johnson is believed to be ready to use a speech to the Tory faithful at the Carlton Club this week to make clear he is watching his successor when it comes to levelling up, Brexit and Ukraine. Some of the most loyal of the 100 or so MPs who backed his return in the autumn are even said to be using the hashtag #BBB – Bring Back Boris.
For the time being, most Tory MPs scoff at the idea of a challenge in 2023. Damian Green, leader of the “One Nation” caucus of moderate Tory MPs, said at the weekend that the chances of Mr Johnson ousting his old rival were “vanishingly small”.
The senior figure insisted that most Tories – and, more importantly, potential Tory voters – “want a period of calm in politics, they do not want the continual Westminster psychodrama”.
But Tory MPs have proved particularly fond of psychodrama. They may insist they want steady hands on the deck of the ship. But some will be tempted to risk another change in captain if they suspect their safe-but-dull present course is leading them towards electoral disaster.
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