Sunak predicted his party’s downfall

Published by The i paper (11th December, 2023)

Rishi Sunak was right about one thing when he won the top job little more than a year ago. Declaring that his “utmost priority” was to unite a fractious party after the turmoil of Liz Truss’s brief reign, he warned they were facing an “existential” moment if failing to come together under “stable competent government.” 

He has lasted 412 days in office. This makes him something of a survivor in the toxic cesspit of Tory politics, even if his approval ratings have crashed with the flatlining economy and floundering public services. But now their civil war has erupted again amid another self-inflicted crisis with dark threats of a challenge from the hard right that would lead to the sixth Tory prime minister in just seven years if successful.

This would, of course, be absurd. Citizens desperate to see that promise of stable and competent government being fulfilled can only watch in disbelief as selfish Tory politicians play pathetic tribal games again, spewing poison into the media about colleagues as they jostle for position while ignoring major problems confronting our country.

The Prime Minister looks weak, assailed by both wings of his party over immigration policy and facing a difficult day at the Covid inquiry as architect of a scheme that helped spread the virus by enticing people to eat out. Ultimately, this latest outbreak of fighting underscores Sunak’s words from 15 months ago since it goes beyond the survival of another Tory prime minister to raise serious questions over his bickering party and its future.

Whatever happens, it seems unlikely Sunak will end up much more than a footnote in political history, a fag-end leader pleading for unity while his party rips itself apart, shreds its brand and shows such contempt for voters. His efforts to dent Labour’s solid lead in the polls have failed. This is unsurprising when the Prime Minister’s big idea for party conference season was to pose as the candidate of change after his side had been in power for 13 years.

The Conservatives have dominated politics for two centuries. Now they are in such a sorry state with their crass populism and performative stunts that a minor league minister who is best known for painting over cartoons for refugee children sparked tremors when he quit. There is crazed talk of turning to the discredited Boris Johnson, even of uniting him with Nigel Farage – a nightmare ticket of unparalleled toxicity for moderate and sensible Tories.

Yet consider how the Conservatives have reached this low point that might lead to electoral wipeout following their Brexit fiasco, Johnson farce and Liz Truss disaster – all symbols of the festering wounds that infect a party once famed for pragmatism.

Bear in mind that at the heart of this latest strife is a stunt on immigration, designed to appease the hard right again rather than tackle complex bureaucratic and global challenges. Almost no one thinks the Rwanda scheme will really “stop the boats”. The idea, another legacy of Johnson’s sordid reign, has been mocked reportedly by both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary. Its solitary “achievement” has been to pour £240m into the pocket of a repulsive dictator who is responsible for creating thousands of refugees during his bloodstained reign. If it ever manages to send any unfortunate people to Kigali, each removal case would cost another £169,000.

Sunak’s political naivety leaves him trapped by this costly and pointless policy following the weaponising of immigration in a Brexit campaign that he backed. His response is another stunt: splitting the job of immigration minister in a bid to divide issues of legal and illegal migration in voters’s minds.

Yet behind the surge in net migration to record levels lies gross failure of successive Tory governments to solve glaring problems in health, higher education, housing and social care, despite bold pledges to the electorate. Remember Johnson’s claim he had “a clear plan” to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”? They ignore hard graft of government and delivery of serious reforms to solve pressing concerns that plague our country and worry voters. Instead, Westminster is corroded by their constant plotting, ceaseless factional fighting and jousting of ambitious political pygmies.

Now the Tories respond to migration with policies that further tarnish their brand while intensifying problems they failed to tackle in power. Take that underfunded, unloved but crucial sector of social care. Ministers still want people from abroad to assist families in need of support since there are too few Britons to fill tough, lowly-paid and skilled jobs. Yet in a move of immense hypocrisy they are telling recruits to abandon their own families, which makes working here much less attractive.

The Government is also telling British citizens they must earn a salary of at least £38,700 to bring in spouses. This is more than double the previous level, will make minimal difference to migration levels and yet inflict widespread misery since it bars a majority of the population from living with a spouse if falling in love across borders.

So the Conservatives stand before the electorate as a party favouring the rich and hostile to families as well as the government that ramped up public debt, drove up taxes, ensnared millions more middle-class families in higher tax bands and made life more difficult for many businesses with Brexit. It has overseen deteriorating public services. It seems confused over climate change. Many leading lights look amateurish and self-serving, an impression underlined daily by the Covid inquiry.

And the party that has been such a ruthless force in British political history appears a dysfunctional and disunited entity, trying to divert attention from factional fighting and its disintegrating coalition with glib stunts and crude attempts to spark rows by exploiting cultural issues. So having stained its brand, displayed ineptitude and insulted voters, is it any wonder that it is facing an existential moment – as predicted by the Prime Minister?

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