Shortly before 7am on Friday, as Rishi Sunak’s plane touched down in the UK, he was upbeat. His trip to the US had been a success, marking another incremental shift towards political order and competence. Precisely nine hours later, the chaos had returned.
Nadine Dorries’s tweet announcing she was standing down as an MP was the first indication of yet more turbulence, with another backbencher, Nigel Adams, resigning after their former boss and political hero, Boris Johnson, did the same.
Sunak’s Downing Street, already at war with the former PM over his evidence to the public inquiry into Covid, now faces not just three perilous byelections but also a very public slanging match with a man it would like, above all else, just to stay out of the news.
The angst inside No 10 is palpable and understandable. More or less every Conservative minister and MP has been saying the same thing in private for months: the only possible escape from electoral annihilation for their party is a period of calm, in which Sunak quietly chalks up policy successes while inflation falls and growth improves.
Sunak’s talks with Joe Biden in the White House, followed by an arguably symbolic new deal on transatlantic relations, exemplified this tactic. Sunak himself concedes that few voters notice foreign policy, but the wider sense of progress, purpose and, above all, discipline is seen as an electoral balm.
But now, once again, the man a Labour official once memorably described as a “honking pudding”, and one followed by its own travelling circus, has returned.
This is not good news for Sunak, according to Rob Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester University, who called Johnson “an albatross around the neck of the prime minister”.
He said: “Every day that Boris Johnson leads the headlines on the news cycle is a good day for the Labour party. If you are Rishi Sunak, and you’re trying to reboot a 13-year-old government, the last thing you need is everything in the news being about someone that people thought they got rid of.
“The risk is we now have another long, hot summer of feuding. Sunak really needs to find a way to dial down the Boris soap opera.”
There is an argument that at least some soap operatics were inevitable. By resigning, Johnson has simply pre-empted a report on whether he misled MPs over lockdown parties, one which would most likely have ended in a tricky Commons vote over whether to suspend him for enough time to prompt a byelection.
At least now Johnson is outside parliament, and an immediate route back via another seat seems tricky, with Conservative HQ saying any MP who quits has to apply to get on to the party’s list of approved candidates, like anyone else.
The one problem for Sunak is that Johnson does not rely on the Commons to get his message across – once removed from No 10 he barely appeared there – and has a ready megaphone through friendly newspapers and supportive MPs.
Sunak’s aim will be to quieten those MPs, although most else is largely outside his control. While polling shows Johnson is unpopular with voters, he is beloved by many Tory members, with a key test of his ability to foment chaos likely to come at the party’s conference in October.
Sunak is, of course, not the only major party leader to have faced a problematic predecessor. But the idea of him mimicking Keir Starmer over Jeremy Corbyn and ejecting Johnson from the party seems highly unlikely.
“That would massively backfire,” said Ford. “It would be open war, with Johnson as one of the participants. It would be the only story in town for months, and a colossal act of electoral self-harm.”
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