Ghosts of Christmas Past
Back in October, Rishi Sunak claimed - to a slightly baffled Conservative Party Conference audience - that his government was a change government. Politics had been broken for thirty years. Rishi and his band of merry misfits were going to rip up the rule book and sort it all out.
That was a long time ago, in political terms anyway. Today, Rishi Sunak brought former PM and godfather of both austerity (intentionally) and Brexit (accidentally) back as his Foreign Secretary. This begs a number of questions, to say the least.
Is Rishi Sunak still a crusader for radical change? And, if so, how does this in any way fit with his decision to appoint to the Lords and bring back into the fold a man who embodies every decision (right and wrong) and every consequence (good and bad) of the last thirteen years? The answer to that question - whatever Sunak may hope - would appear to be a resounding ‘no’. In which case, is this a deliberate change of strategy on the PM’s part or simply a spasm of panic? If it is the former, then this calls into question Sunak’s judgement and the quality of his advisers. No-one should be radically changing their entire narrative a month after launching it. If it is the latter, well... that’s a bit mad, isn’t it? To throw away your whole narrative by accident because you’re in a spot of bother is almost as bad as having done so on purpose.
As we say, a number of questions. Less exciting than the re-emergence of ‘Call me Dave’ is the movement of ministers much further down the pecking order. But the slew of resignations from capable, relatively diligent junior ministers is significant. In Nick Gibb, Neil O’Brien and Jesse Norman, Sunak loses good people who were basically on board with what he was trying to do. They’ve all voluntarily left Government today and, whilst their motives may vary, none of this speaks to confidence and optimism in Conservative ranks. It also, potentially, signals that senior Tory MPs believe an election might come sooner, rather than later. After all, former Ministers are barred from taking up certain roles in the private sector for six months after the stand down/are sacked. May (when some believe the PM should go to the polls) is, of course, just six months away. And, as Lodestone’s new MRP polling analysis (conducted with our partners at Survation) shows, even previously safe seats such as O’Brien’s are in play. Our numbers show his previous majority of 17,000 whittled down substantially. Similarly, it’s no wonder Jesse Norman is stepping down to focus on “local issues” as our poll has his Hereford and South Herefordshire down as a Labour gain.
Rishi Sunak’s plan was to deliver better, more stable Government whilst signalling some hope and change stuff. He has dumped the hope and change stuff and is haemorrhaging the sort of ministers who can deliver. He has managed to turn a moment of relative strength - his (overdue) sacking of his loudmouth Home Secretary into a dog’s dinner of a mini- reshuffle that will serve to reinforce to voters how absurd the idea of the Conservative Party representing ‘change’ always was. That said, the injection of new blood into Cabinet in the form of Victoria Atkins and Rich Holden may help him balance the narrative when it comes to Cameron’s elevation. And this is a Cabinet that is more ideologically at ease with itself than the previous iteration - even if that ease is a juxtaposition with what Sunak, himself, was publicly arguing just weeks ago.
The problem the Prime Minister has is that he is haunted by the Conservative Party’s past. He has chosen, today, to embrace one of those ghosts - whilst, presumably, signalling that others will be exorcised (no role for Liz Truss, for example, or for her most fervent poltergeist helpers). But the rattling of the chains is beyond his control, the spectres at the feast are numerous and all of the polling suggests that this is one horror story that the British people are - aside from anything else - supremely bored of being forced to watch.