This has been a week inevitably taken up with Rishi Sunak, so like it or not he also has to dominate the diary. But at least we muse on a prognostication of what happens next. So for those who don’t want to know how it ends, look away now…
In his seminal work The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer describes the ‘temporary kings’ created by ancient peoples, to act as totems to be sacrificed to the gods. The unfortunate Rishi Sunak seems to have, thrust upon him by a reluctant party, many of those qualities. Like the temporary kings, he may be there in order to fulfil certain unpleasant but necessary functions, like in this case accepting economic reality, before being sacrificed either when he fails or when his role is done.
On being appointed prime minister, Mr Sunak was keen to point out he would be following the Tory manifesto on which Boris Johnson came to power in 2019. The need here being to claim legitimacy and fight off any suggestion of the need for a general election. If he is so driven to address that in his very first speech then, whatever he says, he obviously sees the question mark against his legitimacy and the demands for a general election as a serious problem.
Rishi Sunak is not a popular figure in the party, certainly not among the membership, but there has been a sense of inevitability about his eventual position. On September 2, Pecksniff wrote in his diary, following the coronation of Liz Truss: “For Mr Sunak and his supporters, the fight goes on, confident that the wheels will fall off quickly. Then to whom would the party turn for its next saviour? Neither they nor the public could stomach another farce like this summer’s. They would be looking for a shoo-in. And who else could they possibly call upon but the party’s recent second choice?”
The Tory leadership contest this time may not quite have been a shoo-in – there was a slightly embarrassing attempt at a contest – but there are many (and especially among the Tory membership) who feel it was set up carefully by the 1922 Committee for Mr Sunak to win.
The members have not been slow to suspect a stitch-up. Tory social media boards are not exactly brimming over with excitement at the prospect of having Rishi Sunak as party leader and prime minister. Most put him on notice, giving him no more than six months to prove himself. But of course, he can’t. One of the reasons they object to him is that he is at least prepared to acknowledge the economic realities. That is why they put him there, since their own delusions demand rejection of them. It is odd that, for a party so wedded to the free market, they reject what the markets say too.
And the malcontents already have a leader. Nadine Dorries (Mid Beds) has found herself for too long trapped in the role of soubrette in Boris Johnson’s comedy of manners, when she yearns for the starring role of femme fatale. Now, in her rage as the transpontine vulgarities of the court of King Boris topple, she declares: “If Rishi becomes PM automatically by Tuesday, I think all hell will break loose. He has no mandate whatsoever to be Prime Minister of this country…”
… Dear reader, it happened. But note the lady’s insistence on the question of mandate. That will continue to haunt Mr Sunak. The brief and embarrassing Johnson ‘campaign’ on which Ms Dorries relied began with his being enticed from his Caribbean idyll – booed as he boarded the flight – and then arriving at Gatwick to find no adoring crowd of sycophants and little support at Westminster.
Mr Johnson approached his two rivals for talks, but what could he offer? It turns out: nothing. He tried, with the optimism of a true narcissist, to persuade the others to drop out in his favour.
Echoes of the raspberries were heard across Westminster Palace. Then the final hubris. He declares he was “uniquely placed to avert a general election now”. (Note that mention of an election.) He goes on to boast he had the votes and an adoring membership would back him. And his gesture of conciliation towards his fellow candidates?
“Though I have reached out to both Rishi and Penny – because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest – we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this.” So once again it was everyone else’s fault but his own, but he remains ready to take over when a bruised and regretful nation realises they need a saviour.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) was another of Boris Johnson’s leading acolytes. But like so many who have put their trust in Mr Johnson in the past, he was betrayed. He is now languishing once more on the backbenches. He had excitedly tweeted about his hero’s having received 100 votes… and then Mr Johnson flounced out of the contest.
“Well that was unexpected,” he tweeted, with the chagrin of one who has employed a dodgy plumber and now finds every time he flushes the toilet his bath fills with excrement. “Off to bed!” The next morning he was a passionate supporter of Rishi Sunak.
This question of numbers is a puzzle. It is known that Rishi Sunak had 181. Boris Johnson claimed 102 and Mordaunt supposedly had 90. That makes a total of 373, but there are only 357 Tory MPs and it is believed a number of them didn’t commit themselves. So, dear reader, if you are at your sharpest you may notice something here seems amiss. It appears somebody has been telling porkies. We know it wasn’t Mr Sunak, since his figures were checked, and Ms Mordaunt didn’t claim to have reached the magic number anyway. Now what does this remind you of?
Of the 62 MPs who were known to have backed Boris Johnson, seven were from this region. They were: Paul Bristow (Peterborough), James Duddridge (Southend East), Stephen McPartland (Stevenage), Shailesh Vara (NW Cambs), John Whittingdale (Maldon), Priti Patel (Witham) and James Cleverly (Braintree).
Remember, these are the people on whose judgement rests the future of this country.
In her final speech from No.10, Liz Truss promised to spend more time in her constituency. Pecksniff cannot be the only one to choke over his oeufs bénédicte. First of all, she has to remember where it is. Can drinkers at the Crown in Downham Market expect her to buy her round of a Friday evening? Will she be seen trawling the aisles in Swaffham Tesco? Her voters wait agog.
But what this new determination from Ms Truss shows us is that She Knows She Was Right – another one – and is prepared to claw her way back. So now Rishi Sunak has two recent ex-prime ministers plotting against him on the back benches.
Imagine if you will… Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) excitedly jumps on a train to London, tweeting about being back on the cool kids’ table, and scuttles off to Tory HQ to be in the front rank of the welcoming committee for his new prime minister. Then as Sunak arrives and hugs and shakes hands with the crowd of MPs… he passes our Matt by. He is left, clapping fruitlessly, a rictus grin frozen on his face as he realises that here is another prime minister who is not going to reinstate him in a ministerial limousine.
Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) declares that “I’m not convinced the public want a general election”. Meanwhile a YouGov poll of the same week shows that “66% of adults believe the new PM should call an early general election”.
The surprise may not be that Mr Francois isn’t keen to contemplate a general election, but that he doesn’t dismiss it utterly. Mark Francois – like Rishi Sunak, like Boris Johnson, like Nadine Dorries – is prepared to mention the elephant in the room, accepting that the threat to the government is real.
So what happens next? What are the prospects of an early election? Let us browse through Old Pecksniff’s Almanack to find what we might expect from politics over the next couple of years.
How will Rishi Sunak fare against Keir Starmer? Recent polls tell us Mr Starmer presently leads this popularity contest among the voters by 10 points. Mr Sunak might hope for some dent in that discrepancy, as the new broom, but in order to make real inroads he will need to show people he ‘gets it’. But ‘people’ are precisely what is missing from the Sunak message. He asks for engagement but offers none. He shows little aptitude for understanding or improving the public’s desperate financial plight, in spite of that soothing Bible studies manner asking for us to believe. Labour has a huge lead across all polls, and in reality there seems no way back for the Tories in 2024. The first new poll on Mr Sunak’s attempts at government will be interesting.
For there to be an early election, Mr Sunak has to lose his majority in the House. But how real is it, when it represents no single united group? Tory factionalism means in effect Mr Sunak has to form a coalition of warring parties. The majority only becomes real if somebody is in control and can act rationally. But in a party riven by factionalism, it is quite likely that nobody is and nobody can.
Suella Braverman will go sooner or later, leaving bitterness behind her. Mr Johnson and Ms Truss are already plotting to undermine the new prime minister, Ms Mordaunt can’t be taking her rejection lying down, the members don’t like him for his economic views and because he is the wrong colour. Any one of those factors could splinter the party and render the majority meaningless. And that is more likely to happen than not.
There is a clumsiness about Rishi Sunak’s cabinet selection which suggests man management might not be a strength. It looks as though he has chosen one or two people for competence and to pacify the markets, though not many since competence appears in short supply. He has turned to quite a few of his cronies, many of whom turn out to be the Walking Dead, which is worrying if Messrs Raab, Dowden and Williamson are the people to set course for the country’s future. At least Mr Williamson becomes minister without portfolio, which presumably means he doesn’t have to touch anything.
NHS insiders breathed a sigh of relief when Steve Barclay (NE Cambs) left his job as health secretary, only to find him reappointed under Rishi Sunak. Mr Barclay will be particularly pleased. First, not only does he get his job and his limousine back, he can go on running down the NHS as had been his aim before he left. Calls to his office this week could throw no light on exactly who would now be in charge of the supposed new hospitals programme, so there is no change in the level of incompetence either.
But second, he is automatically eligible for redundancy pay of £16,876 for the two months he was previously in office.
Steve Barclay also has another claim. Rishi Sunak himself represents Richmond in Yorkshire, but his choice of cabinet members is telling, and hardly one which shows any real interest in levelling up. Mr Barclay’s constituency of North East Cambridgeshire is geographically the furthest north of any cabinet member, excluding the one seat in Scotland. So: midlands, north west, north east, England’s big cities, even parts of Wales – they are all without cabinet representation.
Yet somewhere in the labyrinthine politics of the Conservative Party, there is something called the ‘One Nation’ group. They consider themselves traditionalists, as in the sense presumably of traditionally governing the country from Westminster.
After the reshuffle, there are now six MPs from this region in the cabinet: James Cleverly (Braintree), Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere), Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden) and Mr Barclay.
There is also an Essex MP who has joined the government outside the cabinet. Robert Halfon (Harlow) has been appointed a minister in the education department. This is good news, since Mr Halfon has a genuine interest in education. It is also unusual in finding a minister appointed to a department in which he or she has any knowledge whatever. But there is a downside. Mr Halfon had been chair of the education select committee, which is there to hold the government to account. He will now give up that post, and it would probably be overly cynical to wonder whether, in the words of President Lyndon Johnson, Rishi Sunak believes “It’s better to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in”.
It might have been expected that the launch of Gina Miller’s Fair and True Party earlier this year would have had more razzmatazz. But no. The phrase ‘lead balloon’ comes to mind. So whatever happened to it? The party has now announced its first tranche of candidates for the general election, and there is one at least in this region. He is Alan Victor, who will be contesting the Nadine Dorries seat of Mid Beds. Mr Victor lives locally and is a retired car company executive.
Now we come to that Tom Hunt moment, so anticipated by his voters in Ipswich. Poor Mr Hunt has been on a journey, and who can tell whether he has reached his destination yet. As for so many of his parliamentary colleagues, though the object of his admiration for who should lead his party may have changed frequently during the past few weeks, his certainty that his choice of the moment is the right one never varies.
Mr Hunt was a proud supporter of Boris Johnson. Then when the porcine one fell, in July’s leadership contest Kemi Badenoch was the woman to make him proud. By August the candidate to whom he felt closest and who had “the best chance of tackling the most pressing issues that the country faces” changed to Liz Truss, rather than her opponent Rishi Sunak. But with the defenestration of La Truss, the leader to make Our Tom proud this time is, er, Rishi Sunak.
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