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Who benefits from a Rishi Sunak regicide?

Trouble looms on the horizon for Britain's embattled PM. Credit: Getty

January 29, 2024 - 7:00am

Tory leadership plots are on their way to joining death and taxes as one of life’s constants. After a botched rebellion by Simon Clarke last week, rumours are once again circling Westminster of plans to oust Rishi Sunak as leader. The responses to the whispers are just as revealing, with frontrunner Kemi Badenoch keen to distance herself from the conspiracy — a sign not just of loyalty, but that a regicide now would not be in her interests. 

It would take a miracle for Sunak to still be in post as Tory leader a year from now. Either some plot will succeed in the coming months, or else he will fall on his sword shortly after the election defeat. The issue for the party now is that competing factions have vastly different interests in which of those should happen. After the election, maybe 200 or more MPs will have disappeared into defeat. If those are your supporters, then they will be of little help when it comes to a post-election leadership contest. 

This is one of the reasons Badenoch is wise to defend Sunak. As the current favourite to replace him, moving now would be foolish. There is little that can realistically be done to change the party for the next election. A new leadership contest would make the Tories look more chaotic, and push the party further into a death loop. If a candidate is widely popular with both members and MPs likely to keep their seats, as Badenoch is, there is no sense in pushing the button now. 

Others don’t have that luxury. Potential leaders like Suella Braverman have their power base among the MPs of the 2019 intake. Many of these are more punchily Right-wing, and far more worried about the next election than anything that comes after it — because the next poll is make or break for their political careers. They are keenest to agitate now since they have little to lose and, if a potential leader is relying on them for support, this becomes useless when they are booted out by the electorate. 

This is why the frontrunners who have their eye on post-election contests are keeping their voices down. The two-stage nature of the process means a trade-off between appealing to members and MPs. This is especially nuanced when up to half of the latter are about to disappear. The safest seats tend towards moderate MPs, picked for future ministerial ability rather than gutsy political fighting. This bloc will have an outsized influence when it comes to picking the next leader. 

These MPs are likely to look for a more moderate, more pragmatic leader. Hence the ambitious have been burnishing those credentials rather than agitating. In her trade role, Badenoch has been shrewd rather than hardline when it comes to post-Brexit deals and regulations. James Cleverly, a dark horse in the contest but popular with members, has also been far quieter as Home Secretary. Even Priti Patel, a potential challenger from the Right, was quick to turn on Simon Clarke when he publicly went for the Prime Minister this week. 

Tory infighting is a perpetual mess of game theory, bluff and double-bluff. To fully understand the moves in the current round, one needs to grasp how the various factions are placed when the electoral tide changes. Moving sooner, rather than later, benefits those whose supporters are likely to hold their seats. For the others, patience may deliver better chances and a greater reward.


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

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Robbie K
Robbie K
5 months ago

There is little that can realistically be done to change the party for the next election.

Totally disagree. It’s important to remember that most people only have a passing interest in politics and will make an emotive decision at the last minute.
Replacing Sunak with Badenoch could completely alter the landscape for many voters as it would represent a genuine radical and brave change – after all, people are not shifting to Starmer on account of his ideology or policy.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

The radical and brave change was tried when the members elected Truss.
The Tory MPs didn’t back her when she actually was radical and brave; they bottled it and gave in to the blob and MSM. And no, she didn’t crash the markets, look to the BoE for that.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

The markets did in fact crash when she took over, so it’s kind of the same thing.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I think the phrase “You turn if you want to…the lady’s not for turning” springs to mind.
Regrettably the Tory MPs were very much for turning; it hasn’t saved them.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

The difference between Thatcher and Truss is that the former was brilliant, and the latter was hopeless.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

The markets crashed in response to the fact that the BoE blinked before taking action, not in response to the policy changes themselves. At the time, the bond yield spreads were the thing that was presented as proof-positive of Truss/Kwarteng’s incompetence but within a year of Sunak’s establishment-friendly tenure, a similar bond yield spread was reached several times with no apparent political or market meltdown.

What’s the difference? The BoE approves of Sunak and didn’t approve of Truss. So much for the political independence of the central bank.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Well, if you have an independent Central Bank, these things will happen. The fact is that governments get the credit for good things that happen on their watch, and get the blame for bad things that happen on their watch, whether or not they were technically responsible for them. The “markets tanking” thing happened on Truss’ watch.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

The example I gave was where the Bank abused its political independence to assist a political agenda other than the government itself.

This emphatically does not assist your argument. I refer again to the fact that the metrics cited at the time in proof of Truss’s apparent incompetence were reached several times subsequently since without any accusations of incompetence towards Rishi Sunak’s government. The difference is very clearly one of ideological bias, not impartial analysis.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Is Badenoch “sound” though? I am observing from some distance away (Australia), so it isn’t easy for me to tell.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I don’t know whether or not she’d be a good PM but she’s stellar at the dispatch box and will be a terrific leader of the opposition.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Badenoch wouldn’t take the job now. She knows she’s favourite to lead the party to victory in 2029 when the mess she’ll be fixing is Labour’s mess, not the mess left by her own party.

Robbie K
Robbie K
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Sadly you may well be right.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
5 months ago

“There is little that can realistically be done to change the party for the next election.”
How about leaving the ECHR and de-funding a few more dysfunctional IGOs?

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
5 months ago

Oh, and I fogot to mention removing charitable status (and associated tax advantages) from organizations that are primarily concerned with lobbying, rather than charitable works.
These suggestions are measures that are (a) instantaneous in effect (b) actually SAVE money, rather than involving spending money and (c) puts Labour on the spot, since they would be obliged to say whether or not a future Labour government would scrap these measures (and take the financial hit).

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago

I agree. Rishi Sunak could actually make his mark, of a sort, by introducing a few measures that the country needs but which are electoral suicide, and package them in such a way that reversing them would give Labour a massive headache.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

At this stage in the election cycle, the general idea for the existing party of government should be to create as many poison chalices as posible for the next party of government.

Andrew F
Andrew F
5 months ago

Great approach.
However that assumes that we have conservative government and not woke rabble pretending to be one.

j watson
j watson
5 months ago

Not the Author’s fault but the article a metaphor almost for 14 wasted years – continued short term right wing political calculus driving the Country into a proper mess.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The mess we’re in is because the Tories since 2010 have been dad-dancing left-wing politics. No part of the UK’s present mess is due to any right-wing policy: it’s all a load of centre-left crap. Open-door immigration, big expensive government, sclerotic bureaucracy at all levels of government and most of the way into the private sector, hatred of the motorist, illiberal attacks on freedom of expression, high taxes and an instinctive suspicion of free markets and personal liberty.

The CV for the Tories 2010-2024 reads like Labour on steroids, and the fix for the problem is not going to turn out to be more of the same with a red rosette stuck to the front of it.

j watson
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

As just one example I think you fail to see how much the Right needs both cheap labour and the wedge issue of immigration. It manipulates and plays both ends. But sometimes the inherent contradiction comes home to bite.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The “right” doesn’t need cheap labour. Just because corporate interests do favour cheap labour does not mean that the political right must also favour it.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Corporate interests are hardly left wing though.
There are people on the left and right that favour heavy immigration, and people on the left and right who don’t. The reasons, or at least the reasons they give the public, are different.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

“Corporate interests are hardly left wing though.”

Of course they are left-wing, if the political climate they inhabit demands left-wing ideas. The modern phenomenon of wokery is perfect evidence that corporations will engage with any amount of left-wing lunacy as long as it doesn’t raise the taxes they have to pay. And the same goes for wealthy actors, musicians etc – they all espouse fashionable lefty politics these days precisely because there’s no longer any danger they’ll be payig punitive taxes.

The costs of left-wing stupidity nowadays are paid by the middle and working classes in the form of high prices, low social mobility and restricted liberty. The corporations and the already-rich are completely fine.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
5 months ago

There’s no value to anyone in replacing Sunak at this point, except Braverman would get to say she was PM for a few months.
Although it would be another of those fun little ironies that the Conservatives would have their 4th female leader and PM, their second non-white PM, and the first non-white female PM in British history. All before Labour, the so-called champions of diversity and equality, have managed even one female leader (caretakers like Margaret Beckett don’t count).
But large factions of the Conservative Party are in a tail-spin, so maybe they’ll just do it for sh*ts and giggles.

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago

Any Tory leader in the next decade or so will be a caretaker.

AC Harper
AC Harper
5 months ago

“There is little that can realistically be done to change the party for the next election.”
The big ticket items that could generate sufficient change (such as leaving the EHCR, bringing Brexit to Northern Ireland fully, reducing illegal immigration and abandoning Net Zero) would probably all fail to secure a majority and are therefore politically impossible. There are too many Conservative MPs who won’t support such changes.
So the ‘best’ way forward is to remove most existing Conservative MPs at the next General Election and hope that Labour will be beset by its own set of impossibilities.
It will take years for the politicians to win back the trust of the general population, if at all.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

I’ve been a Gove watcher for most of my adult life. Never underestimate the nation’s slipperiest operator. Exceptionally capable and Murdoch’s man.
He has been positioning himself as the one nation Tory, the heir to Johnson-ism (such as it exists) and a reasonable voice outside of the hard-right Daily Mail fruitcake loony courting wing recently.
He used to be on the right wing of the party but the party shifted around and he has found himself to be an electable centrist. He is trying to be what the nation wants rather than what the delusional 150,000 selectorate in the tory party want (remembering they supported Liz Truss!).
Gove is witty and an experienced parliamentarian so would be a great foil to Starmer in opposition.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

He has been part of the failed Tory governments of the last 13 years…

Robbie K
Robbie K
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

He’s a brilliant speaker, but just kinda hard to like.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Good! Give him a go then!

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago

I suspect Rishi might actually welcome someone taking his place just before the worst election defeat in Conservative history.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Indeed. If I’d been in his shoes, I would have been secretly longing for defeat on the Rwanda bill. That would have been a good excuse to resign and let some other poor b’stard take the hit.
I sense that some arms of the liberal Establishment (the BBC, the Guardian) are now surprisingly uneasy about the scale of the impending Tory massacre. They instinctively perceive that it’s really left-liberalism, not proper conservatism, that’s going to be thrashed.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

Quite. Usually I get laughed at when I make this point, but either way we’re now facing an election in which the Tories are about to face their worst ever defeat for having run 14 years of Blair/Brown New Labour politics with a side order of Corbynista lunacy.

What will the response of the real Labour Party be to this? Small government and low taxes?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 months ago

It would indeed be electoral suicide to change leader again but, as the election is already lost, that doesn’t actually matter. As the article points out, only those MPs (re)elected will choose the new leader.
So, perhaps Clarke et al are thinking: get a new interim leader, hold a three-line whip vote on an issue the Nokes and Mitchells are bound to vote against, remove the whip from them so they can’t be official Tory candidates, stack the post-election deck in favour of actual Conservatives ready for another leadership contest.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

Even if an election is “already lost”, there is merit to having a leader who can “save the furniture” (namely diminish the magnitude of the loss).

Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt
5 months ago

“A more moderate and pragmatic leader”, another Rishi Sunak. Look where that got them.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
5 months ago

As people have said, why do we need the mayhem in Game of Thrones, when we have the Tory Party ?

Cam Marsh
Cam Marsh
5 months ago

This is the most important fact going forward…”The safest seats tend towards moderate MPs, picked for future ministerial ability rather than gutsy political fighting. This bloc will have an outsized influence when it comes to picking the next leader. ” 
Unless the Conservatives are totally destroyed – under 30 MPs – then this Cameron/Osborne Bloc will maintain their stranglehold over the Party. They are basically the pre-2016ites who will provide no opposition to Starmer, whatsoever.
For there to be an actual opposition sometime down the line (2030s?) the current Tories need to annihilated electorally later this year. The Conservatives can then build a post-2016 Party.

James Kirk
James Kirk
5 months ago

Sunak should resign on the grounds he cannot win the next election for the Tories. Like with an old sick animal it’s time to visit the vet. Having an ethnic leader in an 80% white country is all very diverse but look at Scotland and London. The Left will call a black Tory a coconut, the Right? well, no need to ask them about perceived immigrants. The LibDems and Starmer’s overt front bench are quite anglo saxon in make up, so dishonest they are. Shame about Boris but he is neither divorced nor forgiven yet. Lacking another Thatcher or Boadicea, we need a toxic Uther Pendragon not some pious Alfred burning cakes as he hides in the marshlands.