This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
It has been three weeks since the Conservative Party Conference and word on the street is that for Rishi Sunak, the longer things go, the worse they are likely to get. Tory insiders, many of whom were looking to the conference to see if the prime minister could shift the dial, now see their party as being in managed decline, with a double by-election defeat in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire only reinforcing those beliefs.
Letters of no-confidence have started to filter in to Sir Graham Brady, most likely from MPs who consider the only way out as being a mix of Trussonomics and Cruella immigration pledges, not realising that appealing to a smaller group of people in more strident terms hasn’t served them well so far. But as long as their dire polling numbers remain stickier than the price of a block of cheese those voices will continue to find an audience, as was demonstrated by the magnetic gravitational pull of Liz Truss and Nigel Farage in Manchester.
Which leaves Rishi Sunak with a now or never moment. Does he want to live out another year as Britain’s unelected prime minister who pushed the party into the clutches of the right-wing (the aforementioned ex-UKIPer reckons he’ll be the leader by 2025 if he does) or does he want to cement his role in history as a great reforming party leader who made the Tories electable again? That is a question David Sefton has grappled with in an op-ed this week, and one Marina Purkiss also gave due consideration to during a TLE broadcast filmed in the aftermath of last Thursday’s by-election defeats.
In Purkiss’s opinion, Sunak is less concerned about his legacy and will act purely out of self-interest in the coming months. “He knows he’s going to lose”, she said, and so he will “hold onto office for as long as he can purely because the longer he is in that position the longer he is able to use it to extract cash, contracts and all the rest”. It is a cynical position, but it’s not as though the evidence isn’t there to support it. Sunak’s family firm signed a billion-dollar deal with BP before he opened hundreds of new licenses in the North Sea, while a Covid startup fund introduced during his time as chancellor ploughed £2 million into firms linked to his wife. Little wonder she calls him her best friend!
But financial gain sounds like a perverse motive for a man who, alongside his wife, is believed to be sitting on a fortune of some three-quarters of a billion pounds. He has also shown a degree of competence in running the country, certainly compared to his predecessors, which suggests there could actually be a bit of a genius play here if he wants a shot at, as Sefton notes, the task that history has afforded him: “not of being a great reforming PM, but of being a great reforming party leader whose role is to get the Tories electable again”. After all, life doesn’t always give you what you want or think you deserve, “but tilting against windmills has never worked for anyone”. Only time will tell whether he will figure that out for himself, and for the good of the country, let’s hope it’s not too much time.
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