UK Tories Are Finally ‘Ready for Rishi.’ Is It Too Late?

The Tory psychodrama has paused for now, but Rishi Sunak has warned of an “existential threat” to the party if it doesn’t change.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Rishi Sunak, the incoming UK prime minister, arrives at his office in Millbank, London, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.</p></div>
Rishi Sunak, the incoming UK prime minister, arrives at his office in Millbank, London, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.

For those who like narratives with neat resolutions, the rise and fall and rise again of Rishi Sunak offers a certain sense of justice served. The son of immigrants of Indian descent, Sunak now becomes Britain’s first ethnic minority prime minister during Diwali (the Hindu, Sikh and Jain festival of lights). He replaces Liz Truss, the woman whose policies he warned would amount to economic suicide, and he’s edged out Boris Johnson after the former PM dramatically parachuted in from his Caribbean holiday to seize the prize. 

In Sunak, the country is getting a set of qualities it badly needs in a leader: competence, experience, credibility, integrity. These haven’t come as a package deal in a very long time. 

It would be nice if British politics were about to become boring again, but that’s far from certain. The process that toppled Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and which has just elevated Sunak, speaks to the new leader’s central challenge: that the governing Tory party may itself be ungovernable. Sunak himself reportedly spoke to that as he addressed MPs behind closed doors on Monday, warning the party faced an “existential threat” if it didn’t come together. 

Some would say it’s past the point of no-return. “We have a parliamentary party which is completely riven and it’s ungovernable,” Tory MP Christopher Chope told BBC radio on Monday morning. The only answer, Chope argued, is a general election. Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary and hardcore Johnson ally, warned (or rather threatened) that “all hell will break loose” if Sunak is crowned leader.

“He’s got no mandate whatsoever to be prime minister of this country,” Dorries said. The transition is perfectly within the rules of British parliamentary democracy (Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown in similar fashion), but she has a point. The latest psychodrama took place in within the party whose election-winning prowess is storied. It was the second change of power in six weeks, but this one was orchestrated behind closed doors by lawmakers whom polls say would be roundly driven out of office if an election were held now. There were no debates, hustings or platform speeches. There wasn’t even a vote from the 172,000 party members, let alone a broader ballot. Welcome to the smoke-free backroom.  

Those are the two central facts facing the incoming prime minister — that the Tories are having a raging identity crisis and that they have a very strong interest in going as long as possible without a general election. Sunak’s best hope is that ultimately an instinct of self-preservation will prevail, allowing him to reshape the Conservative agenda and rekindle a sense of self-belief in a party that looks weary after 12 years in office. If he fails, he would have no choice but to ask the King to dissolve parliament and call new elections. 

After a period of unity in the party (even warring tribes have to rest and refuel at some point), tensions are certain to reemerge. 

Sunak is the fourth Tory prime minister since David Cameron resigned after the 2016 Brexit vote. This is a party that finishes off leaders at the rate that Chelsea football club changes managers. While a well-honed whipping operation has traditionally kept backbench MPs in line so that the leader could drive the policy agenda, that discipline seems to have broken down substantially as we saw with last week’s farcical fracking vote. In the age of screenshot WhastApp messages and a proper code of behavior, there’s less sting to the whip these days.  

It doesn’t help that Sunak will have to contend with a backbench bloc composed of disgruntled Johnson supporters. While the former prime minister bowed out of the race Sunday night, he made it clear the move was merely tactical. “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” said Johnson in a letter full of self-puffery. 

Johnson had encouraged the hype around his return to the top of British politics and led his troops up the hill. Hours before he backed out, former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi devoted a column in Sunday’s Daily Telegraph to Johnson 2.0. “Nobody else can better face off the threat posed by Sir Keir Starmer and win elections,” he wrote.

Johnson apparently cleared the 100-vote threshold needed to take the race to party members, where polls suggest he would have won it. While self-preservation will drag most of those supporters into the Sunak camp, the new prime minister could face a block that opposes his agenda when it comes to making tough choices about spending and taxation. 

But the biggest problem Sunak faces is leading a party that no longer knows what it stands for and that has forgot how to put the interests of the country first. The Tories were traditionally the party of pragmatism, governing competence and fiscal probity; none of those labels have applied for a while. Johnson wrote blank checks; Truss won her leadership election by preaching a dogma of debt-fueled tax-cuts. 

Meanwhile, as my colleague Adrian Wooldridge wrote recently, the membership ranks have dwindled over the years, the private sector has sucked in much talent that might have otherwise gone to government and the Brexit wars cleared out experienced politicians who disagreed with the Johnson orthodoxy, most of whom have left parliament altogether. 

It’s hard to overstate the challenges facing Sunak; they were big enough indeed to convince Johnson to pass the coveted chalice. Every difficult decision — whether on the Northern Ireland Protocol, or pensions, taxation or various areas of spending — will leave parts of his party unhappy. He’ll have to demonstrate some results to keep them in line. 

There are perhaps signs that Conservatives have worn themselves out with the constant fighting. Even prominent Johnson supporters seem to have swung to Sunak for now. The new premier can take some comfort from the knowledge that this is a party that tends to whip itself into line the nearer it gets to an election. Perhaps the last six weeks were all a bad dream. Either way, the next time Britain changes leaders, it should be at the ballot box.

(Corrects former prime minister’s name in 5th paragraph)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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