Rishi Sunak began the year with five pledges — the fifth and most politically potent of which was to “stop the small boats”. In making this commitment, the Prime Minister promised “no tricks, no ambiguity. We’re either delivering for you or we’re not.”
So far, it is clear, they’re not. In fact, the Government is losing ground. The Supreme Court verdict on the Rwanda scheme was a massive setback — as were the departures of Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick. If Sunak’s attempt to rescue the Rwanda policy through the passing of emergency legislation fails, then what’s left of his authority will be lost. It’s hard to see how he could carry on as PM in such circumstances.
Given that the Right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party looks set to rebel on the Safety of Rwanda Bill, December could mark the end not just of 2023, but of Sunak too. Yet his Tory enemies couldn’t pick a worse time to bring him down.
For a start, the Right doesn’t have a viable leadership candidate. Braverman is not popular with the public — and there’s no proof that she has enough parliamentary support to reach the final two in a leadership race. It is easily forgotten that in the summer 2022 contest she only came sixth. As for the wild idea of getting Boris Johnson back into the Commons (and therefore available for the leadership), forget it. Any such move would be blocked while Sunak is still in charge — and if he falls there wouldn’t be enough time to arrange a suitable by-election.
The second reason not to squish Rishi right now is the timing of the next general election. A cornered PM would be within his rights to call an immediate vote, the result of which would be a Tory apocalypse. If we assume instead that Sunak goes quietly, we’d need a new prime minister, the third in a row to be imposed without a popular mandate. He or she would come under immense pressure to go to the country sharpish. Changing leaders in the next few months would therefore likely mean losing the option of an autumn election.
One final problem is that if Sunak is toppled too soon, his successor would be seen as a usurper. As such, they would receive the blame for any ensuing electoral defeat (vengeful Sunakites would make sure of that). So even if Right-wingers could replace the PM with a candidate of their choice, what would be the point? They’d just be burning through one of their papabili (of which they have precious few) for no real gain.
Sunak, then, should be allowed to carry on into 2024. The best-case scenario is that his plan comes together, thus offering genuine hope of recovery. The worst-case scenario is that he’s humiliated in the local elections, at which point he could leave of his own volition — thus allowing a successor to emerge with unbloodied hands.
For all of these reasons, it would be an act of self-sabotaging idiocy for the Right to sink Sunak now. But that, of course, is why they’re almost certain to try.