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24 Oct 2022

Politics and Society

Tim Bale assesses whether the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be able to hold together a divided Conservative Party. 

Liz Truss made much of her connection with Leeds during her bid for the Tory leadership.  But, somewhat ironically, that connection’s even stronger than ever now that she’s resigned as Prime Minister. Not only did Truss live and go to school there for a while, but the 44 days she spent at Number 10 before announcing her resignation ended up exactly matching legendary football boss Brian Clough’s comically short stint in charge of the city’s football club in the summer of 1974 – a period immortalised in the pages of David Peace’s novel The Damned United, which was later made into movie starring Michael Sheen as the famously motor-mouthed manager.

Football fans of a certain age with only vague memories of what happened next can be forgiven for thinking that it was all downhill for Leeds after that, as tensions within the squad, as well as more bad managerial appointments, eventually saw the club demoted, never to recover the glory days they’d experienced under the man Clough took over from, Don Revie.

In reality, however, it wasn’t like that. Clough was rapidly replaced by former England captain Jimmy Armfield, who swiftly stabilised the situation and then further strengthened the side, which, during the four years he was in charge, reached a number of international and domestic cup finals and semi-finals, as well as finishing every season in a reasonably respectable league position.

In case it isn’t obvious by now: for Revie read Johnson; for Clough, read Truss; but the real question is, is Rishi Sunak Jimmy Armfield?

It’s easy to see why he might not be. In contrast to how Revie left Leeds (to take on the England job, incidentally), Johnson didn’t exactly leave his party with a ruthlessly efficient set of players capable of executing their individual roles to perfection but working well as a team too.

Indeed, by the time Johnson departed, over fifty of his frontbench had resigned in protest and he only narrowly won a confidence vote a few weeks previously. And when Truss came in she did a Clough by foolishly replacing tried and trusted team members with ones she reckoned were better suited to her style of play, simultaneously alienating both MPs who’d stuck with Johnson and MPs who hadn’t.

On the other hand, the mess Sunak inherits may, paradoxically, represent something of an opportunity for him. If he is more sensible than Truss and Johnson, both of whom rewarded loyalty rather than talent, and instead reaches across the party when choosing his frontbench team, that could come across an immediate improvement – as long as those MPs who were unaccountably given jobs under the previous regimes are prepared to accept their fate.

Whether that happens may depend on what Conservative MPs think of the party’s electoral chances. If, in reasonably short order, Rishi Sunak looks like he may be capable of saving some of them their seats, then they may well suck up their resentment. If he doesn’t, they’ll probably take it out on him, believing that, had he not removed them from their government post, it might have helped them secure a job with a lobbying firm or as a political pundit following their ejection from the Commons.

But what, I hear you cry, of ideology?  Surely the biggest problem Sunak faces isn’t a mere human resources issue but one of principle?  Won’t ‘the right’ of the parliamentary party go after him after his rejection of Truss’s tax cutting, supply side agenda?

To which the answer is: maybe; but maybe not.

There has been an awful lot of loose talk recently about both Sunak and Hunt being ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’.  Perhaps, relative to Truss and Kwarteng, they are. But in relation to the rest of the parliamentary party? I don’t think so. In fact, they are more or less what most Tory MPs are these days – bog-standard Thatcherites who want taxes and spending as low as possible and the state as small as possible, but not so low and so small as to lose the confidence of the markets or the goodwill of the electorate.

Sunak is also one of the original Brexiteers, which might just mean he will be given a little more benefit of the doubt should he choose to take a more pragmatic the Northern Ireland Protocol – especially now he can argue he’s doing it for the sake of an economy. That probably won’t help him with the DUP, which in turn won’t help him get the Assembly up and running. But, hey, you can’t have everything.

In short, we hear a lot these days about the Conservative Party being ‘ungovernable’. And perhaps it is. But perhaps that’s partly a reflection of who was trying to govern it rather than something inherent or inevitable.

Theresa May was an ex-Remainer who blew her majority and tried to get a deal to which tens if not hundreds of her MPs objected. Boris Johnson was a disaster waiting to happen – the longstanding doubts about his integrity proved well-founded, and he was only interested in being Prime Minister, not in what prime ministers are actually there to do. And as for Liz Truss, the less said the better.

Rishi Sunak faces huge policy challenges, it is true. But they are, for the most part, not of his own making. His instincts align with the bulk of his parliamentary party. And he is intellectually, temperamentally and communicatively capable of doing the job of PM. Chaos, then, does not necessarily beckon.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and former deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe.

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