On the first day back after Christmas, Tory MPs were invited for welcome drinks in the Prime Minister’s parliamentary office. Rishi Sunak – a teetotaller – was not there. Instead, his Chief Whip hosted. Simon Hart told those present that drinks would be held fortnightly since ‘we are one big family, not a series of families’. He was referring to Mark Francois’s eyebrow-raising claim last month that groups of MPs (New Conservatives, the European Research Group, etc.) were the ‘five families’ of a Tory mafia.
The Rwanda Bill will return to the Commons next week, so there will be plenty of opportunity for blood feuds to resurface. But despite his gag, Hart didn’t spend much time trying to rally the party around the common aim of stopping the boats. Instead, he used his address to focus on what seems to be No. 10’s main message: that the economy’s fortunes are improving.
As his pledges on immigration and the NHS run into trouble, Sunak is switching to a safety-first approach. This week, at one of the many town hall-style events he plans to hold in the run-up to the election, he said: ‘The choice facing our country is: do we stick with the plan that is starting to deliver the long-term change that our country needs or do we go back to square one?’
‘Rishi has been chopping and changing strategy for the past few months,’ complains one senior Tory. At the party’s conference he posed as a radical, claiming he would end the ‘30-year political status quo’. Now, he’s Mr Stability, pledging continuity. But Sunak’s close allies insist his message is consistent: ‘He is willing to take difficult decisions – it takes patience and discipline to bring about change,’ says a supporter.