There must come a time when even Beth Rigby starts to ask whether she is too fixated on a small staff party which happened nearly two years ago and not quite enough on the highest inflation rate in 30 years and the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But to be fair to Sky TV’s political editor – who herself was taken off air for three months last year for attending a party which broke Covid rules – she is hardly the only one. As well as every other media outlet pursuing the same story to the point of absurdity the story is being fed by a number of covens of Conservative MPs who are determined to use this opportunity to oust the Prime Minister. Besides those who have never liked him are those who appear to have made the cold calculation that he is no longer an electoral asset and, although he might be to thank for their victory in 2019, they would stand a better chance of re-election with Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss.
They need to think again – and fast. The idea that a change of leader is going to turn around the Conservatives’ fortunes is dangerous nonsense. Put Sunak or Truss in charge and we are still going to be faced with a cost of living crisis. Inflation is still going to be over 5 per cent; energy bills are still going to go up by 50 per cent or more in April – and there is nothing another Tory leader could do about it. Those are the biggest threats to the government.
For PM Sunak the difficulties would be especially intense because people will remember him as the Chancellor who presided over rising inflation, who failed to remind the Bank of England of its duty to keep the Consumer Prices Index at or close to 2 per cent. While Sunak may have cleverly skipped telling the House of Commons that National Insurance rates would be going up by 1.25 per cent – a fiscal announcement which, unusually, was made by the Prime Minister – that is unlikely to wash with the public when shrunken pay slips start to land on doormats from April onwards. Sunak was still Chancellor at the time the decision was made.
Sunak does at least possess good communication skills and is TV-friendly. The same is not true of Liz Truss, who has qualities more likely to frighten the voters. Michael Gove? The public made its mind up about him long ago – and his confession to snorting cocaine while penning columns laying into middle class drug users isn’t going to impress Tories in the shires, even if it was more than two decades ago. Jeremy Hunt? He has already been rejected once. Sajid Javid? He can claim his hands were clean throughout Covid because he was out of office, but you are as likely to get a rousing speech out of a stone.
And we are assuming, of course, that all these candidates obeyed Covid restrictions to the letter. I have no evidence to offer to the contrary, yet as soon as any of these candidates declare there will be intense efforts to sniff out the smallest of breaches. If they are found to have gone out for a second walk of the day they are going to be toast. That is the atmosphere we are in, whether we like it or not.
Boris Johnson might be a maverick when it comes down to rules of any kind – and he has exposed the folly of passing such nannying rules in the first place. But he does have a connection with people who do not usually vote Tory. Rishi Sunak might just about be able to claim that, too, but it is hard to see any other possible candidate who could even remotely ensure that the red wall is not rebuilt.