Sorting by


Sack Suella Braverman or cut taxes? Rishi Sunak’s dilemma as he fights to keep Tory hopes alive

Westminster this week was transfixed by two political gatherings, just yards away from each other but miles apart in mood.

On Wednesday evening Rachel Reeves launched her new book, a history of female economists, at the Institute for Government’s impressive Regency headquarters off St James’s Park.

The evening oozed with the anticipation of power as a dozen Shadow Cabinet ministers, Labour grandees such as Peter Mandelson – holding court in a corridor – and the great and the good of Whitehall united in homage to the country’s probable next chancellor.

The very next morning, Rishi Sunak delivered a speech on AI a few doors away at the Royal Society. The handful of Conservative MPs in attendance showed little enthusiasm, despite the urgency of the subject matter; Westminster consensus is that the Prime Minister has little hope of getting concrete results at his AI Safety Summit next week.

With Labour’s poll lead consistent at nearly 20 percentage points, little explanation is needed for the excitement gap between the two parties. The Opposition has stumbled in recent weeks with Sir Keir Starmer under heavy criticism for his staunch support of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, while Ms Reeves was embarrassed by the revelations that parts of her book were plagiarised from Wikipedia – “It is totally toxic for her,” one gleeful Tory MP chortled.

But few political insiders believe Labour’s current troubles will meaningfully shift the polls, and the party continues to prepare for power behind the scenes. “We are in the foothills of the general election now,” one Shadow Cabinet minister told i. Sir Keir is pushing to start “access talks” with the civil service, where Labour will brief senior mandarins on their top policy priorities to ensure they can be implemented as soon as possible under a new government, with Sue Gray set to lead the party’s delegation to Whitehall.

There are still worries about how Labour sells its message to the public in the run-up to the next election – one senior figure said: “We need to answer the question of, what does Labour mean without any money? Because we’ve never had that challenge before.”

But there is little doubt that the Opposition is in a happier place than the Government right now. Asked what the mood in the Conservatives is, one Tory backbencher said sarcastically: “It’s all going well, the by-elections were fun – general election’s in the bag!”

Mr Sunak – ever the optimist – believes he can use the next few weeks to convince the public that his “long-term decisions for a brighter future” are a safer bet than handing the reins of power over to Sir Keir. “It is a time to get our heads down, knuckle down and deliver for people,” a No 10 insider said, pointing to the AI Safety Summit, the King’s Speech on 7 November and the chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 22 November as opportunities to lay out more details of the Tory vision for the future.

His team is planning to lean heavily on the Prime Minister’s relative youth – he is 18 years younger than his Labour opposite number – as the election approaches. “We are framing a choice between one leader who is young and looking to the future versus Starmer who is pretty backward-looking,” one member of the inner circle said.

Mr Sunak is also planning to make a speech at Mansion House in the heart of the City of London on 13 November, i can reveal – a chance to make a pitch to Britain’s business community just two days before the next release of prices data which some economists believe will show the Prime Minister has hit his target of halving inflation this year. “If we can hold our strategy on inflation and that comes right down, we can start to say this is a guy who was the right guy to come in at a time of economic crisis,” a source said.

But many Tories remain sceptical about the next month’s setpiece events changing the political weather, especially given Jeremy Hunt’s warning that he will be unable to make significant changes to tax or spending policy given the dire state of the public finances. One MP said: “I basically think the exam question from now to the end of the year is, have we basically got the concerns of the public which are the economy and the NHS – and everything else is minuscule. But our ability to affect this stuff is frankly minimal.”

The backbencher warned that while MPs will accept a muted Autumn Statement, pressure for an ambitious economic strategy will start to mount soon enough: “The pressure for tax cuts in the new year is going to be really, really intense – it is going to be deafening, everybody is going to be screaming about it.”

Anticipation is also building for a ministerial reshuffle which could come as soon as next week but may be delayed for weeks or even months. Environment Secretary Thérèse  Coffey is widely tipped to be sacked, while Scottish Secretary Alister Jack is also expected to be eased out as he is standing down from Parliament at the next election.

A senior MP said that if Mr Sunak is going to reshuffle his ministerial team, he should ensure every department has a junior minister who is either in an unassailable safe seat or is standing down at the next election, “so that they can be in London on a Thursday and Friday, and then the rest of the department can campaign”.

The biggest question marks hang over Mr Hunt and Suella Braverman, the divisive Home Secretary. One backbencher said: “Moving Suella would be very popular with some colleagues but it is a huge risk on the right.” Sacking the Chancellor would “upset” centrist MPs, another source said, but they added that the moderate wing of the party was “very muted” because “they know there is an election, they will want to remain united under the Tory banner”.

MPs in the “Red Wall” want Mr Sunak to signal a decisive shift to the right, accusing him of being as tribal as Liz Truss. “He has purged the right of the party,” one said. “OK, Liz purged the left of the party, but now Rishi has no one from the right.”

Downing Street aides reject the suggestion that the Prime Minister has favoured one wing of the party. “I think the public are really sick of politics, they want someone who is going to solve their problems not intellectual wanders round which direction we should shift in one way or the other,” a source said. But, defending the PM’s hardliner bona fides, they added: “Rishi Sunak is pretty tough on immigration, he’s fiscally tough in that you can’t get sweeties unless you can pay for them.”

A final wild card in Mr Sunak’s bid to perk up his party by the end of the year will come shortly before Christmas, when the Supreme Court rules on whether it is legal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The Prime Minister has sought to suppress debate on whether Britain should quit the European Convention on Human Rights, saying he believes his immigration policy does not breach the treaty, but he may have to change track if the Government loses the case. “The thing about the ECHR is it’s just not an issue at the moment so we don’t need a position until the next Rwanda court verdict comes back,” a Tory official said.

But keeping Tory morale up is not just a matter of day-to-day comfort, some insiders fear – it could be the key to whether or not the party is truly doomed at the next election. As one MP put it: “The biggest political problem we have is people giving a s**t and not giving up, because when you give up you know you are going to lose big.”

Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button