When Rishi Sunak addressed his cabinet this week, he tried to strike an optimistic note. Despite Labour’s commanding poll lead, the misery of strikes and the deepening NHS crisis, the Prime Minister said progress was possible, but on one condition: ‘There are challenges we face,’ he said. ‘But when we are united there is nothing we can’t do.’
His implication, of course, was that a warring Tory party will achieve nothing. Despite bringing some calm to Westminster after a turbulent year, Sunak is already the subject of hostile briefings from his own MPs. His five priorities – halve inflation, reduce debt, grow the economy, cut NHS waiting lists and stop illegal Channel crossings – led to much public enthusiasm from Tory MPs. But privately, some were scathing: ‘That pointless speech made us look pointless,’ vented one minister.
Boris Johnson’s most ardent supporters spy an opportunity for their man to make a comeback if the local elections are disappointing in May. So far, it’s only Boris’s true believers, such as Nadine Dorries, making the case publicly. ‘The demand isn’t there. But you never know what desperation will do,’ says one former minister. Others point to Richard Tice’s Reform party, which is positioning itself to the right of the Conservatives, as evidence that the party needs to be more hardline.
David Cameron famously laughed off Ukip as the party of fruitcakes, loons and closet racists, thinking no right-wing challenger could ever cause him a problem. Since Nigel Farage disproved that theory, the Tories have been less complacent – and the right of the party, in particular, is becoming restive. No. 10 is nervous.
Sunak must unite the right of his party. ‘MPs need a cause to coalesce around,’ admits a government figure.