January 17, 2024 - 7:00am

Westminster resignations rarely have the impact those falling on their sword hope they will. Rishi Sunak will likely be able to shrug off the loss of Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, and the PPS who followed in their wake. His Rwanda bill has survived the second reading and the internal opposition has not snowballed into a concerted move against him. However, this turmoil points to the Tories’ bigger problem — whatever dim hopes they might have of an electoral recovery cannot be nurtured in this environment. 

For more than a year now, the Tories have languished around 20 points behind Labour in the polls. The narrative from Number 10 has been the same throughout: polls narrow, it’s not over, and there could always be a turnaround. That’s all true, but there is no natural phenomenon which shifts public opinion: it depends on what the parties do. The rumble over Rwanda shows that the party is in a bad position to change things. 

As the Conservatives try to get into election-fighting shape, the prospects of finding the sort of unity and popularity they need seem slim. There are now about six weeks until the Budget when, once again, the Chancellor will have to balance fiscal realities against Tories clamouring for tax cuts. Expect another chorus of dissent when they are left disappointed. Then, two months after that, voters will take a scythe to Tory councillors in the local elections, prompting more discontent within the party. None of this will make the Party more electable. 

Instead, the Tories will continue their messy and public psychodrama. In 2019, this proved cathartic, pushing through the Brexit deadlock to a message they could rally around. No such luck on this occasion. At the same time, this limits Sunak’s ability to get anything done. If his party is pushing back, his legislative and policy options are even more limited as the clock runs down. His chance to make positive impacts becomes much tougher — again hurting the electoral offering. 

When this happens, a broader sense starts to spread that Sunak is yesterday’s man. Those who have to deal with the Government will sense more and more that change is coming, and that Sunak won’t have much chance to deliver on what he says. Striking public sector workers, for example, will know they only have to hold out a little longer for a Labour government to talk to. On foreign policy, allies and enemies alike will be aware that change is coming. Dealings with Britain’s government will go into stasis, and it will be Starmer whose ear is sought.

It is by no means impossible for the Tories to turn around their polling deficit. But there must be a plan, rather than just a hope. With the Party fighting itself like this, it is hard to see how that emerges. Division simply compounds the risk of defeat. Indeed, the Tories know this — the constant infighting over Maastricht was one of the things that made the 1997 election so bad for them. The Rwanda rebellion and the ensuing resignations are survivable for Sunak, but the spirit of division will make that fightback harder and harder.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.