When Rishi Sunak embarked on a reshuffle of his cabinet this week, he wanted to avoid the traditional scrum of cameras as MPs walked up to the No. 10 door. Instead, the Prime Minister called each minister to inform them of his shake-up of their Whitehall departments to create new ministries to reflect his priorities.
It was typical of the Sunak premiership. Where his predecessors would go out of their way to court press attention, this PM prefers to be low key. Early on, No. 10 viewed it as a success that the World Cup dominated the front pages over politics. The hope among Team Sunak is that this quieter approach will be welcomed by a public worn down by Tory psychodrama.
‘Boris is in submarine mode,’ says one Tory MP. ‘He is appearing from time to time to remind people he is around’
But politics abhors a vacuum. While Sunak may not be so interested in feeding the conversation, his two predecessors are. The announcement on the rewiring of Whitehall came after a weekend of extensive Liz Truss coverage following a 4,000-word op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph and her interview with The Spectator. While Truss says she supports Sunak, she paints him as a captive of a high-tax high-spend consensus. ‘It’s very Rishi to get the headlines back with a technical announcement,’ noted a senior minister.
Boris Johnson, too, is attempting a return to the stage. As Sunak welcomes President Zelensky on his first trip to the UK since Russia’s invasion, Johnson is positioning himself as Britain’s leading Ukraine hawk and urging Sunak to authorise the sending of not just tanks but fighter jets. With two very recent predecessors in the Commons, there are, it seems, three of them in this premiership.
Some of Sunak’s allies had thought Truss would stay in self-imposed exile, ashamed of her 49-day attempt at the premiership. But she’s as energetic as ever, lacking much mea in her mea culpa. This led another former Tory leader and Sunak mentor, William Hague, to say that ‘leaders who deny any culpability in their own downfall have a corrosive effect on the party and wider electorate’. The swipe was at both Truss and Johnson.
Although both former prime ministers haunt Sunak’s premiership, they do so in different ways. Johnson is the prince across the water. He has made no secret of the fact that he thinks his time in No. 10 was cruelly cut short. Johnson thinks Tory MPs ousted him on a false premise: that he had become the problem and that without him they’d be more electable. There are some Sunak aides who are fretting that if the local elections in May are as bad as the polls suggest, there may be an attempt at a Johnson restoration.
While that is viewed by most in the Tory party as very unlikely – ‘the return of Tory sleaze with Nadhim is just a reminder why we can’t go back there’, says one minister – Johnson’s interventions are regarded with trepidation. ‘Boris is in submarine mode,’ says a Tory MP who previously backed Johnson for the leadership. ‘He is appearing from time to time to remind people he is around.’
Even now, Johnson has lost none of his ability to dominate headlines. He recently called for Nato to offer membership to Ukraine, despite having said that this wasn’t possible ‘anytime soon’ when he was in Downing Street. Supporters of Sunak worry that Johnson may intervene in the Northern Ireland Protocol if a compromise agreement is found in the coming weeks, as well as on issues such as levelling up and tax. ‘It’s just very easy from the outside to turn around and say we aren’t going far enough on a whole range of things,’ sighs an insider.
Truss, meanwhile, is not viewed as someone who could mount a return to No. 10 (and anyway she has ruled it out). But she poses a problem to Sunak because her ideas – low tax, economic growth – still speak to a decent chunk of the party. Truss plans to use her time on the backbenches to make the arguments against a ‘drift, right across the free world, towards what are essentially more social democratic policies: higher taxes, higher spending, bigger government, relatively low interest rates and cheap money’. She’s clearly in the mood to keep making that point. She told The Spectator: ‘There’s no doubt that to those of us on the side of politics who believe in smaller government, free markets have not been winning the argument.’
A new set of Tory MPs has emerged, the Conservative Growth Group, which hopes to help her make that argument. The 40-strong parliamentary caucus gathers every Wednesday to discuss free market ideas. It is made up of members of Truss’s cabinet, including former environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena and Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary. Truss herself attends occasionally.
Members pitch it as a return to first principles rather than ‘reheating Trussism’. This group says they are about ‘policy, not personality’ and insist that they want to help Sunak to forge a plan for economic growth. Of course, growth isn’t exactly a controversial idea – Sunak and Keir Starmer alike talk about the need for it. While the group is talking to the Treasury, it’s likely that they will argue for Sunak to move faster on supply-side reform and tax cuts than he intends.
Had Truss’s mini-Budget not blown up, she would have gone on to launch an eight-point ‘autumn of action’. The Spectator has seen a copy of this never–published document, which ranges from reforming financial services and business regulation to immigration and childcare. Truss had hoped to simplify planning rules by introducing a presumption in favour of permission for small sites, while speeding up planning decisions with more robust intervention if local authorities prevaricated. Students and temporary workers would have been removed from migration statistics, and the quota for seasonal workers would have been increased. Immigration numbers would likely have been pushed even higher. On childcare, rules around the number of children that carers could look after would have been relaxed.
Some of this would have been deeply controversial. The party could have haemorrhaged support in the Home Counties over planning reforms, and Suella Braverman might have resigned if immigration rules were relaxed. The document alludes to such pitfalls – noting more work was needed on immigration to resolve ‘policy conflicts’. It’s questionable whether the plan was politically deliverable.
Truss’s critics want to avoid further debate of Trussonomics. ‘We shouldn’t give her oxygen, as it will just create a rerun of the summer Tory leadership contest,’ says one old-timer. ‘A lot of us would rather hear a lot less from her,’ says another senior Tory MP. ‘We would rather voters forgot her time in Downing Street.’ It was during those seven weeks of Truss that the Tory party fell to 30 points behind Labour (it was a mere minus ten under Boris); even now it hovers around minus 20. The new party chairman Greg Hands told staff at CCHQ on his arrival of his hopes that the party could turn things around to secure a surprise victory. That a small majority is seen as something to strive for shows how far the party’s fortunes have fallen since the 80-seat landslide of 2019.
Truss poses a problem to Sunak because her ideas still speak to a decent chunk of the party
The interventions by Truss and co have led centrist Tories to conclude that a battle of ideas is being waged in anticipation of an election loss. ‘They are preparing to fight for a move to the right in the next leadership contest,’ says a member of the One Nation group. ‘If we lost badly, we would be left with a rump of MPs and that would probably move us to the right,’ muses another MP whose seat is relatively safe. ‘We have Michael Howard and William Hague as examples – and we went out of power for a generation.’
The Downing Street response to all this is to keep calm and carry on. There is silence on Truss and Johnson, so as not to prolong the drama. But MPs are complaining that Sunak’s quieter approach has left constituents asking ‘Where’s Rishi?’. He does not – as one supportive MP puts it – ‘occupy space’ as Johnson did. As the PM tries to get his head down, the risk is that his predecessors will end up stealing the show.