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21 Jul 2023

Politics and Society

Luca Augé explores Rishi Sunak’s handling of the challenges he has faced since first becoming Prime Minister through to the recent Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson.

Becoming Prime Minister between elections is always difficult. You inherit someone’s else parliamentary party, someone’s else Cabinet, and most likely have your predecessors still around either gladly praising or (more likely) criticising you. Since October 2022, Rishi Sunak has had more trouble than most, with no less than three former Prime Ministers on his backbenches, including the disruptive presence of Boris Johnson. As a result, the Prime Minister has been forced to juggle between keeping his party together and keeping his government running.

Following the House of Commons Privileges Committee ‘partygate’ report on 15 June 2023, Sunak struggled to unequivocally accept the findings that Johnson had “deliberately misled Parliament” by claiming that gatherings held during the Covid-19 lockdowns were lawful. This evasive response to the report and its consequences is surprising for someone who promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” on his first day as Prime Minister. At the same time, it says much about Sunak’s leadership, the current dynamics within the Conservative Party and Johnson’s legacy.

Sunak and Johnson share a long history of political cooperation in government. Sunak became Chief Secretary to the Treasury when Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019 and was later Chancellor of the Exchequer for almost the whole duration of Johnson’s time in Downing Street. Together, they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, implemented the furlough scheme, and pushed forward policies around levelling up. There were tensions between them, but these were more often linked to diverging views on spending levels than a wider policy or ideological vision.

It was in summer 2022 that their relationship seemingly deteriorated, with Sunak being the first of many to resign due to Johnson’s handling of the Chris Pincher scandal. Johnson felt so betrayed that he has since framed Sunak as directly responsible for his own downfall.

The betrayal of his mentor didn’t immediately benefit Sunak. He failed to be elected in the subsequent leadership contest, but eventually became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister in October 2022 after Truss’s chaotic and short-lived stint in Downing Street.

Yet on his first day, Sunak used Johnson’s legacy in office to establish his own distinct policy platform. He pledged to be different than his predecessors and bring more integrity to the office of Prime Minister. His more cautious character than Johnson or Truss initially seemed to help him enact his promise and stabilise the government. He kept Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor with the mission to respond to rising interest rates and has signed the Windsor Framework with the European Union fixing several issues that emerged following Brexit.

However, in the last few weeks, the image of integrity and stability that Sunak was able to project has been undermined by his reaction to the Privileges Committee report. Despite Johnson being very unpopular with the British public, he refused to express an opinion and decided to give his party a free vote on the report. When Parliament voted on it on 20 June 2023, he was one of 224 Conservative MPs that wasn’t present. More recently, he admitted not to have read a report condemning Johnson and his allies for undermining the Privileges Committee’s work.

This passive reaction is startling for a Prime Minister relying on an image of probity and pragmatism. It is even more so as condemning Johnson would have been without great electoral consequences given his unpopularity and could have reinforced Sunak’s standing.

His reaction can largely be understood by the continued strong support by various Conservative MPs, members and supporters for Johnson. If Sunak’s passivity was an attempt to not alienate them and keep things calm, it clearly failed. Not only did Johnson resign as MP even before the report was published, but he was followed by two of his allies and more resignations were initially feared. Several MPs publicly supported Johnson and criticised the Committee’s work including sitting Conservative members.

The decision not to intervene didn’t prevent Conservative infightings and instead leaves Sunak weakened. His party looks divided and unsure about just how to handle Johnson, while the wider public is critical. This may translate across to upcoming by-elections, with voters ready to express their disillusionment with the Conservative Party. Such a precarious position is also dangerous for the next General Election scheduled to take place within the next 18 months. A divided party is always a difficult starting point for an electoral campaign, especially for one in office since 2010, and polls are already putting the Labour Party already far ahead of the Conservatives.

Sunak now faces testing next few months. He will have to decide if going back to his initial promise of integrity and stable government remains possible in a visibly divided Conservative Party. He will have to (again) deal with Johnson, who is also being investigated by the Covid-19 public inquiry and already isn’t fully cooperating.

As for many Conservative Prime Ministers before him, Sunak now faces one of the greatest threat to his leadership from his own party. His capacity to deal with these dynamics, while pursuing his work as Prime Minister, will determine not only his personal fortunes, but also the ones of the Conservative Party and the UK as a whole. Failing to do so might make Sunak the leader presiding over the end of more than a decade of Conservative government.

By Luca Augé, PhD Student in English Studies and Political Science at the Centre for English-Speaking World, Sorbonne Nouvelle University.


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