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Why Rishi Sunak will survive — for now

He's not the only one to blame. Credit: Getty

May 6, 2024 - 9:30am

I was wrong. When, last month, I asked whether a terrible set of local election results would prompt MPs to remove Rishi Sunak, I could find no logical reason why they shouldn’t. But I see my mistake now. I should have extended my search to illogical reasons too.

Certainly we can’t blame the pollsters. By and large, the various results were as bad as predicted. For instance, though the Tories didn’t quite drop to third place in the Blackpool South by-election, the Conservative-to-Labour swing was the third-biggest since the war. What’s more, of the 10 biggest such swings since 1945, half have happened under Sunak’s leadership.

That fact alone should be enough to prompt Tory MPs to swift and decisive action, but instead they’re sitting on their hands. I guess that’s one way to keep a seat.

Perhaps in the confusion of results, they missed their moment. Did those barmy rumours about Sadiq Khan losing in London bamboozle them? Did Ben Houchen’s victory on the Tees provide false hope? Or are they still trying to wrap their heads around national equivalent vote share?

Not really. This can’t be blamed on the fog of war. The indications are that the would-be Tory rebels gave up well before Thursday. According to Dan Hodges in the Mail on Sunday, they surrendered two weeks ago. “We don’t have enough MPs’ votes,” one of them told him, “and even if we did, we don’t have a candidate.”

So forget about no change, no chance. The new line from the Tory discontents is that whatever happens now is the Prime Minister’s fault. As a “rebel source” told Ben Riley-Smith of the Telegraph, “Rishi is now going to own the election.”

Except that, like a dodgy timeshare, he only owns some of the disaster. The coming election is the culmination of a crack-up that started before his leadership. It began with a bang — or rather the multiple blow-outs that constituted Partygate. That happened on Boris Johnson’s watch. Then, for 50 days, it was Liz Truss’s turn. As if we hadn’t forgotten, she helpfully reminded voters by promoting her book during the local election campaign.

Sunak’s portion of the blame is not insignificant. In his own way, he too has failed to deliver on the promises of 2019. But unlike Johnson and Truss, he’s been allowed by his MPs to get away with it. It’s not as if they’re incapable of changing leaders again: they’ve had enough practice. Nor, after the last few days, do they lack a pretext. Rather, they simply can’t rouse themselves to the necessary effort.

And that’s why we can’t limit the blame to the Prime Minister alone. The ministers who haven’t resigned in protest, the backbenchers who haven’t put in their letters of no confidence: they too must accept their share of the responsibility. After all, they were elected on a manifesto to control our borders, and level up the land that was betrayed with barely a protest. The honourable exceptions know who they are, but the swing will come for them all.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Rob N
Rob N
16 days ago

And their failure to even try to save the Country is going to lead to its final destruction under Labour.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
16 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

It’s so depressing to watch. Over the weekend, I thought about the Labour landslide in 1997 and how it all felt so optimistic and things were going to be on the up from now on. I was only 15 at the time, so not old enough to vote, but I will never forget the feeling of excitement that shivered through everything. That it was springtime probably helped.
I can’t detect any of that excitement or optimism about the forthcoming Labour government – it’s conspicuous by its absence. And not even a carpet of daffodils from Aberdeen to St Ives can change that.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
16 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Only 15 in 1997. Bless! But your remembrance is accurate.
The teenagers who speak to me today think that Starmer looks ‘too Tory’. They don’t find that look exciting. But it’s the same sort of misconception that New Labour and Blair generated in 1997.

j watson
j watson
15 days ago

Teenagers may not be enthused by Starmer, but they aren’t exactly rallying to the Tories and the Right are they.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
16 days ago

I suspect landslide defeats for the ruling party are going to become the norm until the electoral system is reformed and something closer to direct democracy is introduced. Social media makes representative democracy obsolete.

Ian_S
Ian_S
16 days ago

Obviously things have got to get a lot worse before there’s any chance of them getting better.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
16 days ago

I assumed that the lack of MPs wishing to step up was that there was no point in making the effort now, given the almost certain destruction come election time which must be not far off. That was my ‘realistic’ assessment but reading Peter reminds me that these cowardly slobs are our appointed representatives whose job it is to do just that. All the time. Even when time is running down on this Parliament. That means now. Not simply protect themselves or like those standing down, running away. I do not expect anything better from Labour which is the main desperate gutting reality we are facing. Ugh.

j watson
j watson
15 days ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

Farage the same. Commentating pays more.

richard jones
richard jones
16 days ago

Misery me…England win the Euros, a couple of planes take off for Rwanda in July and August and channel crossings drop, inflation at 2% and interest/mortgage rates down in September, strongish Q2 growth reported in November…
What’s not to like? 5 more years…

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
16 days ago

Rishi Sunak is not the only one to blame and I would suggest his biggest mistake was to bring back David Cameron as Foreign Secretary. Here was a man who called for a referendum on the EU which he thought he could not lose and who walked away immediately the result was known without preparing the Civil Service (90% of whom voted Remain) for a ‘Leave’ vote. A further three years of chaos resulted in Theresa May losing her majority and the Executive being stymied by the House of Commons. Boris Johnson’s pyrrhic election win in December 2019 was the result of two things : A hope that ‘Brexjt would be done’ and a distrust of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister (even though ten million or so voters including the present Leader of the Opposition voted for that to be the case). And no sooner had the election been won within three months the covid pandemic had struck. The lessons of the last four years must surely be a) never close the economy down without a proper cost/ benefit analysis of all the pros and cons of doing so b)never pour four hundred billion into the economy and expect there to be no pain when eventually the bills come in and the consequences of having done so fully come home to roost . It was in my view unfortunate that Boris Johnson never possessed the kind of leadership needed at such a time and was never the same after being hospitalised with the disease in April 2020. Liz Truss’s forty nine days or whatever should convince the Conservative party if it should survive the forthcoming General Election never again to give its membership the final say in who should be its leader and possible Prime Minister since that person has to command a majority in the House of Commons (and in Truss’s case we still do not know whether a majority of Conservative M P s supported her election as Leader). Of the Prime Ministers since 1945 Sir Alec-Douglas Home, James Callaghan, Gordon Brown and Liz Truss never won a General Election. David Cameron eventually did and in 2017 Theresa May was leader of the largest party. Current polling suggests Rishi Sunak is likely to be another P M rejected by the electorate but the damage was done long before October 2022.

David Holmes
David Holmes
16 days ago

If you compare the Blackpool South voting results to the previous election there was no swing from Tory to Labour. In fact, Labour got fewer votes this time than last and all parties received fewer votes except the Reform party (over 50% up). Yes, a lower turnout (30% +) certainly could explain some of these figures, but it was not across the board, and it seems to me that Tory voters simply stayed at home. Tory voters hate the Conservative Party, for sure (as it is no longer Conservative) but there is little or no evidence that they have “swung to Labour” or that they have any appetite for Keir Starmer as PM. The same can be said for many recent by-elections – there was no swing and Tory voters simply stayed at home as there was nobody they could vote for.

David L
David L
15 days ago
Reply to  David Holmes

“Tory voters hate the conservative party”

Surely that should be the other way round?

Conservative voters hate the tory party. There’s nothing, literally nothing conservative about the current tory party.

The tory party hates Conservative voters also works.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago

Totally wrong. The crack up started when the Tories got Cameron as leader (apparently because he gave a speech without notes…or Conservative content actually) and turned into the LibDems. The membership were effectively ignored and non Conservative candidates imposed on constituencies, as if the membership don’t understand what their local electorate are feeling.
The “heir to Blair” couldn’t win an election until he was forced to promise a referendum on EU membership…and didn’t allow the civil service to prepare for a Leave vote. He then ran away.
May was another LibDem decrying her own party as the Nasty Party…total rubbish of course, but it got her some PR with the MSM.
Johnson won to “get Brexit done” which he did, sort of…but he couldn’t handle the Covid crisis properly. Neither could Sunak as Chancellor, who apparently didn’t know that if you print loads of money (to pay people not to work) you get rampant inflation. And this man is supposed to be “a grown up”..!!
Starmer will agree with whoever he thinks will get him votes…and the electorate know it. A hung Parliament or small Labour majority beckons.
In any event we will have a Parliament of unprincipled clowns whose sole purpose is their own welfare…and stuff the people.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
15 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Agree. Who in 1990 could imagine that the tumultuous Thatcherite Revolution and its core manifesto – support for enterprise and business, freedom, family and Small State – would – only 30 years later – have been totally dissolved and overtaken by a more powerful counter-revolution – the Big State Progressive Order established by the EU Empire & its Blairite/Fake Tory Quislings? Gone! And with our entire rotten property gluttonous London political and administrative Establishment (bar maybe under a hundred impotent rebels) fully embracing the Progressive Left’s extreme ‘equality’, net zero and identitarian credos, atop a nasty popular culture drenched in the acid of anti capitalist class envy, victimhood, aggressive multiculturalism and excessive human rights-driven entitlement- we are now trapped and suffocating in a deep dark cage. Democracy offers no tools to break this elite and its regulatory system whatsoever. Watch Traumazone. The best lessons on the fate of coercive top down neo socialist regimes lies in the East.

j watson
j watson
15 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

‘Membership effectively ignored’? That same membership who chose Mad Liz?
And although it may be a surprise, the Tory membership is not the country. Thanks goodness.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
15 days ago
Reply to  j watson

She wasn’t mad for wanting growth in the economy, she was just useless at the politics to achieve it.

j watson
j watson
15 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Who doesn’t want Growth! She and her apologists make out this was some unique bit of insight. Rubbish.
Her approach was chaotic, unthinking, and as we all know, made things worse. Good grief one only had to listen to how wooden she was to realise no great intellect here. Just pure blinding ambition. Terrible reflection that 80K Tory members voted for someone who so obviously was going to come a cropper fast.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
15 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Who doesn’t want growth? Err.. the present lot and Labour because their policies are anti growth…

j watson
j watson
14 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Which Policies MC? Any like the current increase in trade friction implemented on 30/4 perhaps?

AC Harper
AC Harper
16 days ago

The two main parties have been called the two cheeks of the same arse. Clearly many people want to punish the Conservatives… but they don’t want to reward Labour.
I expect the next General Election will be a sullen affair.

John Kirk
John Kirk
15 days ago

“Of the 10 biggest such swings since 1945, half have happened under Sunak’s leadership.” There’s no comparison at all with the 40’s, the 50’s, or the 60’s. Even the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s saw only the first hints of the nightmare switchback that we’re now on. No election swing whatever is now inconceivable. The under 40’s can’t buy a house without colossal family support; outside the public sector no-one can be sure of a pension or secure employment; Parliament and Whitehall since 2016 have been obliged to lay bare complete disrespect for anything the electorate may have voted for; sustained miserable experience has stripped devolution of all pretence to deliver better or more honest government. But of course, it’s Rishi’s fault!

Matt M
Matt M
15 days ago

It can still be won or at least not lost so badly. 2019 Tory voters will come out to vote on 2 conditions: 1. the Tories give them a reason to do so by implementing the correct policies and 2. Labour are seen as being highly likely to reverse those policies.
This obviously means immigration. And the news there is not all bad.
First the Rwanda Act has received Royal Assent and the deterrent effect is obvious from the streets of Dublin. Getting the flights operational and sufficiently frequent to stop the boats is now the key. That will require luck and determination. It might also require Sunak to resile from the ECHR which would have to be a manifesto commitment as he probably couldn’t get it passed his own Wets at the moment.
Second the legal immigration numbers are falling. The ONS now publishes monthly visas issued numbers and you can see a substantial drop due to increased minimum salary thresholds and dependent’s visas for foreign students and health and social care workers no longer being available.
Now the government needs to introduce a cap on visa numbers. This requires no legislation. The number could reduce over several years say 300k net in 2024 to get to 150k net in 2026. In fact the government should take that time to introduce policies to mitigate any labour shortages – tax incentives for automation, training for Brits to fill Shortage Occupations, etc.
An immigration cap would be a vote winner, would put Labour in a bind as to whether to match it and would also cement Brexit as you cannot control immigration numbers whilst being in the EU.
A campaign based on the messages “Vote for Labour to bring back the boats!” and “Vote for Labour to concrete over the Greenbelt to house a million immigrants a year!” is more likely to work than “Vote Tory to ban tobacco (for some portion of society) and revamp A-Levels”.