A little over a week ago, the narrative surrounding the Conservative Party was that it had turned a corner under prime minister Rishi Sunak and was back in with a chance of being re-elected next year to government, something that had once seemed unthinkable.
This narrative held that Sunak had steadied the ship after the chaos of Boris Johnson’s exit and the zany reign of Liz Truss. He was winning back the trust of voters with policies such as the Windsor Framework deal on Brexit, which he struck with the European Union, and his plan to “stop the boats” bringing illegal immigrants to England’s southwest coast.
Narratives change quickly in British politics. The Tories are at each other’s throats once again.
Two things happened in the last seven days to bring internal mither back to the party: it was hammered in last week’s local elections in England; and the government has drastically scaled back plans for a “bonfire” of the European Union laws that remain on the UK’s statute books.
The former has spooked vulnerable Tory MPs, including the 2019 intake who won their seats when the party shattered Labour’s “Red Wall” in working class areas of the north of England. The latter has infuriated the Brexit ultras of the European Research Group (ERG), who accuse Sunak’s cabinet of reneging on a promise and now seem determined to cause him grief.
Last week’s local election results, when the Tories lost close to 1,100 council seats mostly to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, exceeded the party’s worst fears. There was no evidence of any Sunak bounce among voters and the scale of the defeat stopped any talk of a Tory comeback. All but the most loyal of Sunak’s defenders now accept the likelihood of Keir Starmer’s elevation to prime minister after the next general election, whether he gains an overall majority or heads up a minority government. Many Red Wall Tories appear doomed.
Meanwhile, the row over scrapping EU laws that has blown up over the last two days has sparked open warfare between members of Sunak’s cabinet and the party’s Brexiteer wing.
Last August, during Sunak’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to beat Truss to the party leadership after Johnson, his campaign released a video. In it a random man drags a shredder across an office floor before feeding it with reams of paper marked “EU legislation”.
“In his first 100 days as prime minister, Rishi Sunak will review or repeal post-Brexit EU laws,” the advertisement declared. The not-so-subtle implication was that Sunak would “shred” the lot of it.
The vehicle to do so was meant to be the Retained EU Law Bill, which was initiated by Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg when he was secretary of state for business under Truss. Rees-Mogg was vanquished to the backbenches by Sunak when he took over and replaced by rising star Kemi Badenoch.
She had planned to put a “sunset clause” in the legislation that would have automatically deleted close to 4,000 EU laws from the UK’s statute books on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. This week, however, she changed tack by introducing an amendment to water down the plan. Now, to reduce administrative chaos, the government plans only to scrap 800 laws by the end of the year with no firm timetable for the rest.
Rees-Mogg accused Sunak’s government of breaking its word while Mark Francois, another ERG hardliner, scolded Badenoch by insisting it was a “massive climbdown”. She responded with vigour in the House of Commons on Thursday, and in an interview for Talk TV in which she accused the ERG of being “talkers, not doers”.
The ERG, which deposed Theresa May, is seen as a much diminished force these days, as its inability to trouble Sunak’s Windsor Framework plan showed. Badenoch believes she can brush it off. But the return of Tory Brexit infighting does not bode well for the party, or for Sunak, as it gears up to battle Labour for the keys to Number 10 Downing Street next year.