By Andrew Hammond

New U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrated the end of his first month in office this week, yet many of his fellow Conservative MPs are already looking beyond his period of office to the next leader and the future direction of the party.

To be sure, Sunak has not had the disastrous start to his term of office that Liz Truss did. Nevertheless, he has already had one resignation from his top team in the form of Cabinet Office minister Sir Gavin Williamson, while two others are "on the rocks": Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

While it is by no means sure that Labour will win a big majority at the next election, the odds are growing that the party will emerge with the largest number of MPs in Westminster next time. This is encouraging a growing number of Conservative MPs to begin to announce their retirement from politics, while others think ahead to being back in opposition for the first time since 2010.

At this early stage, it is highly unclear which direction the Conservatives will move in, but the odds are high that ex-prime minister Boris Johnson will play a significant role in the party's future. While Johnson failed to become prime minister for a second time last month, his huge political shadow looms large over Sunak's government.

More than a dozen cabinet ministers in Sunak's cabinet are holdovers from Johnson's governments from 2019 to 2022, a significant number of whom were in "political exile" under Truss's administration: Raab, Michael Gove, Oliver Dowden, and Ben Wallace occupy the same roles as in Johnson's last cabinet.

Other ministers who served in Johnson's top team who are now in new cabinet jobs include Sunak himself; James Cleverly; Grant Shapps; Gillian Keegan; Therese Coffey; Steve Barclay; Nadhim Zahawi; Penny Mordaunt; Robert Jenrick and Braverman.

Moreover, there is a deeper way too in which Johnson's influence extends widely over Sunak's government in a way that wasn't true of Truss'. In his first speech as prime minister, Sunak highlighted Johnson's "incredible achievements" and insisted that "he will deliver on the promise of the [2019] manifesto." Clearly, Sunak sees the success, or failure, of his government resting to a large degree on realizing the vision that Johnson espoused in the 2019 election.

While Sunak's government may not implode in the same way as Truss', he has a massive political hill to climb, and his plan appears to try to last the course till 2024 before holding a general election. A 2023 ballot cannot be ruled out, but like other previous prime ministers who take over in mid-term, he appears to want to give himself time to establish himself before going to the polls.

Sunak is well aware that he must now hit the ground running in a perilous political environment where public opinion is skeptical of him and his government. The fact that he will probably not enjoy a 'honeymoon' in Downing Street is shown by a YouGov opinion poll last month which found that 56 percent want an early general election. Sunak knows that no party in modern political history has won five elections in a row, and he must try to do this in the context of a divided Conservative Party, high inflation, increasing interest rates and cuts in government spending.

So he has a huge challenge ahead of him, and he does this in a context where Johnson (and indeed the wide number of ministers leaving office last month) could become significant political thorns in his side. Johnson remains very popular amongst Conservative members, more so than the new prime minister, and it is therefore plausible that he may try to run again for the leadership in the future, especially if Sunak is perceived to "fail" by party members.

In the last century, four people have served second periods in Downing Street after losing an election. It absolutely cannot be ruled out that Johnson might be the fifth person to achieve this feat.

What makes Johnson's presence potentially potent is that he was turfed from Downing Street not by losing a national ballot. Instead, he was deposed in an internal party vote which may be regretted by increasing numbers of Conservative members if Sunak underwhelms in office.

For Johnson to have a serious shot at a comeback, it may also be necessary for a wider slice of Conservative MPs and the electorate as a whole to become less negative about his legacy from 2019 to 2022. For instance, an Ipsos survey released over the summer showed almost half the UK public thought he has done a bad job as prime minister, the worst rating of any post-war leader.

Taken together, this is why Sunak's prime ministerial inheritance is so potentially politically poisonous for him. He has framed his future success through the lens of the party's 2019 win, and this could yet come back to haunt him, with Johnson potentially becoming a key critic.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.


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Conservatives look beyond Sunak government

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28.11.2022
By Andrew Hammond

New U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrated the end of his first month in office this week, yet many of his fellow Conservative MPs are already looking beyond his period of office to the next leader and the future direction of the party.

To be sure, Sunak has not had the disastrous start to his term of office that Liz Truss did. Nevertheless, he has already had one resignation from his top team in the form of Cabinet Office minister Sir Gavin Williamson, while two others are "on the rocks": Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

While it is by no means sure that Labour will win a big majority at the next election, the odds are growing that the party will emerge with the largest number of MPs in Westminster next time. This is encouraging a growing number of Conservative MPs to begin to announce their retirement from politics, while others think ahead to being back in opposition for the first time since 2010.

At this early stage, it is highly unclear which direction the Conservatives will move in, but the odds are high that ex-prime minister Boris Johnson will play a significant role in the party's future. While Johnson failed to become prime minister for a second time last........

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