7 December 2023

Sunak’s state of emergency


The 28th of February next year will mark fifty years since Edward Heath called a crisis election. Beset by inflation, a miners’ strike, the three-day week, and the Troubles, Heath asked ‘Who governs Britain?’ and received the nation replied, ‘Not you, mate’.

After yesterday’s statement from Suella Braverman, the tepid response to the Government’s latest Illegal Migration Bill, and the resignation of Robert Jenrick, the chances of Rishi Sunak – another Tory technocrat – being bounced into a similar election are rising. But, unlike with Heath, Sunak’s crises are within the Conservative Party, not the country. 

That’s not to say Sunak’s Britain doesn’t have problems. Braverman and Jenrick’s resignation over the ongoing small boats crisis – the biggest Channel-based headache for an English leader since the Norman conquest. Both feel the latest legislation does not go far enough in disregarding international law. 

Jenrick did not go as far as Braverman in calling for Britain to leave the European Court of Human Rights. But according to our ConservativeHome survey, seven in ten Tory members would like to. Sunak’s new law defies the Court to an extent, has been declared incompatible with the Human Rights Act, and has notwithstanding clauses. But Braverman and Jenrick think it will not shift the dial. 

Sunak has made stopping the crossing a totemic issue for his premiership by first making it one of his five pledges, and then by failing to do so. Legal types in and out of government who warned that Sunak’s approach would be fruitless as long as we remain inside the ECHR have been vindicated, even if he argues the situation is more complex than they think. 

Nonetheless, whilst much might not work in Sunak’s Britain, it lacks the feeling of general cataclysm that rocked Heath’s beleaguered administration. He has weathered war in the Middle East and militant unions with a much greater élan than Grocer Heath. He has not had to declare an official state of emergency, something Heath did five times in three and a half years.

But Heath did have something that Sunak lacked: the loyalty of his party. Despite being a man hardly famed for his conviviality, as a former officer in the Royal Artillery amidst a parliamentary party of ex-servicemen, Heath could rely on a military discipline amongst MPs that Sunak can only envy. He would only narrowly (and unexpectedly) be challenged by Margaret Thatcher after losing another election. 

Having forced out three Prime Ministers since 2019, today’s Tory MPs have no such habitual respect for their chosen chief. They also operate in a media environment composed of blogs, GBNews, and whatever Twitter is called this week. All of this is not necessarily conducive to calm discussion and long-term thinking. Politics has sped up, become more unpredictable, and undoubtedly got worse. 

The sum of all this is that to depose a leader of the Conservative Party in 1974 was unheard of; in 2023, it has become passe. Nobody knows how many letters have yet got into Graham Brady, who has long since got bored of all this. But the concern for Number 10 is that the number is steadily rising.

Johnson’s long-marchers or discontented Trussites, cynical leadership rivals or serial malcontents: there has always been a chunk of Conservative opinion that loathes Sunak and wants him out. Rejected by the membership, he only became leader after being proved right over Trussonomics. Despite being a Eurosceptic Thatcherite, the party’s anti-establishment wing sees him as a globalist leftie stooge. 

Jenrick’s resignation shows the direction of travel. In 2019, he joined with Sunak and Oliver Dowden in penning an panegyric to Boris Johnson in that summer’s leadership race: three young junior ministers with an eye on their futures and the trend of party opinion. 

All three were richly rewarded for their efforts. One suspects Jenrick hopes to repeat the trick. Staring at a 20-point deficit in the polls and angry party members, it doesn’t take a genius to interpret his strategy: electoral shellacking, leadership election, and a plum position as Shadow Home Secretary under whichever candidate of the right – let’s call her Penny Bravernoch – wins out amongst Tory members. 

But whilst this might be a sensible career move for an MP like Jenrick, sitting on a majority of 21,816 votes in rural Nottinghamshire, it is not one available to the substantial majority of Conservative MPs. On current polling, many are soon set to find themselves being handed a P45 by a jaded electorate. For those without a cushy TV gig already sorted out, drastic action is required. 

Even if the party’s future belongs to the right, its near future belongs to the left, since the worse an election defeat, the more Sunak-like the parliamentary party will become. The Blue Wall (ghastly term) looks safer than the Red Wall (even ghastlier) according to analysis – a depressing repudiation of the supposed realignment Boris Johnson ushered in back in 2019. 

Hence why Number 10’s recent efforts – cancelling HS2, bringing back David Cameron, quieting any talk of housebuilding and flirting with Inheritance Tax cuts – have seemed much more focused on ensuring their position in the south-east doesn’t deteriorate further. The Conservative Party’s horizons are retreating; consciously or not, defending seats in the North and Midlands might be deprioritised. 

For those MPs on the wrong side of this – many first elected in 2019, and already on their third leader – the instincts of self-preservation might prove too strong to resist. So they dash off a letter to Sir Graham, replace Sunak with Bravernoch, fight a general election on the ECHR, and hope to avoid jobhunting for another five years. 

Patently, this approach is absurd. I say that not only because I am Sunak’s strongest soldier, but because it is deeply flawed. Voters are already sick of the Tory MPs indulging in leadership crises while the country needs governing. Sunak would likely win a confidence vote if it was spearheaded only by the backbench right. He would be weakened but could stagger on until an autumn election. 

Moreover, treating a confidence vote in Sunak as a referendum on ECHR membership would obviously set back proponents of leaving if they lost. Even if they won, their chosen candidate might not win the subsequent leadership election. We might end up with Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt by accident. Even if a Bravernoch figure did triumph, is leaving the ECHR really the current priority of voters? 

As a supporter of leaving the ECHR, I’m sympathetic to its critics. But plunging the party into another civil war, less than a year out from an election, would be suicide. It could turn a 1997-style drubbing into a Canada-1993-style wipeout and make quitting the court an even less likely. Let Sunak try his approach. If it fails, feel the same sense of vindication he had with Truss. 

Yet we live in volatile times. If Sunak thinks his position is under serious threat, could he call a snap election, like Heath, to take his pitch to the country before MPs force him out? Or will he be forced to anyway by his likely inability to get his Illegal Migration Bill through Parliament? Either way, whilst Britain might not be approaching a state of emergency, the Conservative Party certainly is. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.