December 12, 2023 - 7:45am

Four years ago today, Boris Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years. The then prime minister had not just won a landslide but — it seemed — redrawn the electoral map. Suddenly, the Tories had burst through into parts of the country previously deemed off limits, assembling the most formidable coalition of voters since Tony Blair’s breakthrough in 1997. And to cap it all off, they’d taken Sedgefield — Blair’s old constituency — in the process.

Aware of the symbolism, Johnson travelled to Blair’s former seat in an attempt to define his victory, crowning himself the new master. And just in case anyone missed the message, he stole Blair’s famous line from 1997. “We are not the masters,” Johnson warned his new crowd of “Red Wall” MPs. “We are the servants and our job is to serve the people of this country.” 

Blair’s message two decades earlier, though, had a sting in its tail. The Tories were not dead, he warned, just sleeping. “Let their fate serve as a warning to us,” he said. “What the people give, the people can take away.”

Four years on from Johnson’s extraordinary triumph, the Tory Party has entered what amounts to a state of fitful narcolepsy, falling asleep at the wheel to the point that the car has careered over the cliff edge. What we see today is less a coherent political party than a group of crazed individuals fighting to escape from the vehicle before it crashes into the ground.

The result is that Rishi Sunak today faces the most important vote of his short premiership, with predictable rumours swirling around Westminster that should his new Rwanda plan be defeated he too will find his grip on power beginning to slip.

On his Left, Conservative “One Nation” types — or Wets if you are being less kind — threatened to vote it down because it goes too far in restricting human rights. Last night the faction agreed to support it, while expressing “concerns”. On his Right, meanwhile, a coalition of social conservatives, Eurosceptics and Thatcherites seem to have united in condemnation of the bill for not restricting human rights enough. The situation sums up all that has gone wrong for the Tories over the past four years. Where is the coherence? Where is the unity of purpose? Where is the idea?

This is just the kind of bill Johnson should have been able to steer through Parliament with ease. That is, had he not let his own reckless ineptitude get the better of him.

At the root of the Conservatives’ problem today is not the fact that they removed Johnson personally, but instead the utter shallowness of their commitment to the type of big-state Tory nationalism he was elected to deliver. Just look at what he said in Sedgefield to jog your memory of what he was elected to do. Promising to repay the trust of those who had broken a habit of a lifetime to vote Tory, Johnson proclaimed: “I understand how big a step that is, and we will […] deliver on things that matter — not only Brexit, but public services and the NHS.”

It is almost comical that as soon as Johnson was removed last year, the party lurched first to the small-state libertarianism of Liz Truss and then returned to the Osbornism of Sunak. What we have left is a Tory Party without any anchor or captain, its mutinous crew fighting with one another to take control of the ship while they are continuously smashed by events.

The reason this moment is so fraught with danger for Sunak is that the Tory tribes threatening his leadership are not simply fighting over the policy in front of them, but for control of the Conservative Party itself. 

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.