Sunak’s Impossible Job: How The Tories Became ‘Ungovernable’

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Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of Channel 4’s seminal documentary about Graham Taylor’s downfall as England manager.

Most people remember it for the scene where the beleagured boss, watching his team’s defence capitulate in another World Cup qualifying match, declares to no one in particular: “Do I not like that.”

Fewer recall the title of the pioneering fly-on-the-wall film – “An Impossible Job”.

While current England manager Gareth Southgate does his best to disprove that description, Rishi Sunak’s ongoing travails as prime minister show that it now perfectly applies to being leader of the Conservative Party.

The past week has seen the PM forced to call an emergency press conference about emergency legislation which, following the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, forced him into an emergency cabinet reshuffle.

On Tuesday, MPs will have Sunak’s fate in their hands when they vote on the Safety Of Rwanda (Immigration and Asylum) Bill. Were the government to lose, it could well precipitate his downfall as prime minister and Tory leader barely a year after taking on the job.

After succeeding Liz Truss – who, let’s not forget, only lasted seven weeks in the post – Sunak warned his MPs that they needed to unite or die. The fact that he felt the need to repeat that message at a meeting of the 1922 Committee on Wednesday night showed just how much trouble he is in.

The legislation, designed to address the Supreme Court’s concerns when they ruled the government’s Rwanda policy illegal, has succeeded in annoying both wings of the Tory Party.

The centrist One Nation Caucus are queasy about ministers, rather than the courts, having the power to declare the east African country safe. Right-wing MPs believe the legislation does not go far enough by failing to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Both groups will spend the weekend deciding how to vote on Tuesday, which is shaping up to be the most consequential day of Sunak’s 14 months in charge.

“Discipline has broken down completely and the party feels ungovernable,” a senior Tory adviser told HuffPost UK. “The PM has managed to anger pretty much all sides of the party, which is quite the achievement.

“The Rwanda Bill is a fiasco where we appear to be advocating breaking international law but not quite. And the only reason we are not quite doing it is because Rwanda are telling us to find a moral compass or they will withdraw from the Treaty.”

Former cabinet minister David Gauke said: “The Rwanda fiasco demonstrates that finding a sweet spot where it is possible to govern sensibly and satisfy the Tory right is next to impossible. By the looks of it, Rishi Sunak has achieved neither objective.”

While the Tories remain, by some distance, the most electorally successful political party in the western world, the job of leading them has become increasingly difficult in the past 30 years.

While Margaret Thatcher survived in the job for almost 16 years, her downfall in 1990 came about largely – although not solely – as a result of the party’s splits over UK’s relationship with Europe. 

The same schism bedevilled John Major’s time in charge, while even David Cameron – who became Conservative leader telling the party to stop “banging on about Europe” – was ultimately brought down by the issue. 

Theresa May’s time in office was dominated by her unsuccessful attempts to deliver Brexit, while the taste for dissent and rebellion developed by Tory MPs in recent years helped to contribute to Boris Johnson and Truss’s demise as well.

One former minister said Sunak – like Johnson and Truss before him – have also been hampered by his choice of chief whip, whose job it is to enforce the PM’s will and warn him of any backbench discontent.

“It’’s a really important job when the party is difficult to manage,” he said. “Mark Spencer’s incompetence was a big factor in bringing Johnson down, while Wendy Morton was just off the scale.

″[Current chief whip] Simon Hart is a nonentity, which is terrible when managing the parliamentary party is probably the most important thing you have to do to stay in office.

“Gavin Williamson [May’s chief whip] was a complete shit but at least he knew what he was doing. They’ve put a lot of inexperienced people into the whips office, or people who were routinely rebellious in the past. How can someone who has voted against the government go to colleagues and say you’ve got to vote with the government?”

Sunak’s lack of control over his MPs was demonstrated last Monday when Tory rebels joined with Labour to defeat the government over compensation for victims of the infected blood scandal.

One backbencher told HuffPost UK: “How can you lose a vote on a bill when the government has a majority of 60 and not know it was going to happen? The reason they lost was because they didn’t have enough MPs there. 

“Leading the Conservative Party is one of the toughest gigs in politics, but the last three have really underestimated the need to have an effective whips office and a strong, respected chief whip who knows what they’re doing. They need to be able to say to the PM ‘you can’t do that or you’ll lose’. 

“How could Rishi set out on this Rwanda emergency legislation endeavour and not know whether he’ll get it through? To lose that vote we would be committing suicide.”

At the end of the Graham Taylor documentary, the England team return to Heathrow Airport to be greeted by a baying mob of disgruntled supporters. One shouts at the manager: “Do the country a favour – resign.”

After burning through two prime ministers since winning an 80-seat majority in 2019, few Tory MPs have the stomach for yet another leadership election.

“There has to be a realisation from colleagues that there is no way we can change leader again before the next election,” one MPs said. “Talk about letters of no confidence going in needs to stop. Either Rishi leads us into the next election or we go into it without a leader.”

But the fact that the possibility is being actively discussed demonstrates that Tuesday’s vote is one that Sunak simply cannot afford to lose.