Isabel Hardman

Can Rishi Sunak win back the Tory backbenches?

Can Rishi Sunak win back the Tory backbenches?
Rishi Sunak (Photo: Getty)
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It's not going to be an easy autumn for the Tories, which is why the top brass have started holding meetings with nervous backbenchers to try to allay their fears about tax rises and other politically difficult decisions which are looming. Rishi Sunak also clearly saw the value in ensuring the public was aware he was taking their concerns about these matters seriously when he accidentally on purpose revealed his lines for one of these briefings as he walked along Downing Street.

Sunak's message yesterday afternoon when he and Boris Johnson spoke to the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs was very much 'you need to trust us', according to those present. One MP said that 'it was sombre but what we needed to hear. We left under no doubt that there will be difficult times ahead.'

One of the reasons the Chancellor and Prime Minister have focused particularly on the newest MPs is that they are a brittle bunch, many of them representing seats they are nervous about being able to hold as the first ever Tory incumbents. Lockdown means they have also not spent very much time in the Commons and therefore don't know senior colleagues as well as they might have done in normal times. Their six month absence has made it much harder for those MPs serving as PPSs to the Prime Minister and Chancellor to build good relationships with the new backbenchers.

Sunak's PPSs, James Cartlidge and Claire Coutinho, are widely respected in the Tory party and are generally considered much more effective than Johnson's team. One MP explains: 'It is better for Rishi than it was with Sajid Javid. His PPSs are well-regarded across Westminster and particularly on the Tory benches. It's a shame Boris can't nick them.' They have been working hard to encourage MPs to trust the Chancellor when he says that there won't be 'a horror show of tax rises with no end in sight'. 

They are also trying to work out how to get MPs to show that support when numbers are so limited in the Chamber: as James said yesterday, it is much harder for Johnson and other ministers to land attacks on Labour when they don't have benches of colleagues roaring behind them. In normal times, there would be a 'Treasury support group' of loyal MPs who were often also keen to win the Chancellor's favour and therefore a promotion. They would be given suggestions for helpful questions and cutting heckles of the opposition before a session in the Chamber. That's rather more difficult to do now. But the scale of difficult decisions facing Sunak dwarfs anything George Osborne, who was particularly good at getting supportive MPs to rally to his cause, had to deal with. The Chancellor's PPSs will be working flat out in the coming weeks to keep MPs from panicking.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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