Did Rishi Sunak expect to get a honeymoon period? Perhaps not. Left to patch up Liz Truss’s market meltdown and lumbered with many of her cabinet appointments, he was always going to have a hard time pulling off a clean break with the chaos and dysfunction of the last year.
Nonetheless, he might have hoped for a few good weeks before he and Jeremy Hunt unveil renewed austerity to the waiting nation on 17 November. Instead, Sunak’s chance to make his first impression as Prime Minister has been completely dominated by two deeply unedifying rows.
Both reflect the weak position from which Sunak entered Downing Street, albeit in different ways. Re-appointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary was the price of shoring up his right flank and perhaps robbing Boris Johnson of the momentum he needed to take the leadership contest to a membership vote. As for Gavin Williamson, the fact that Wendy Morton, the former chief whip, felt so willing to immediately try to scalp the freshly appointed “minister without portfolio” by revealing his angry, expletive-ridden texts to her shows that MPs are perfectly happy to take shots at the new leadership right from the off.
Neither case is impossible to defend. Even if you think Braverman a bad Home Secretary, some sources in the Home Office definitely seem to be briefing against her on political grounds. And there are legitimate questions about the extent to which ministers can or should be prevented from consulting on policy with their own backbenchers, which is essentially what Braverman was doing when she broke ministerial rules by sending an official document from her personal email address.
Williamson’s comments revealed in Morton’s complaint to the party, meanwhile, while infantile and nasty, don’t really seem to cross the line into “bullying”, given that she was then the chief whip and he a mere backbencher.
Nevertheless, that something can be defended doesn’t mean it’s worth spending scarce political capital to do so. Whatever Braverman’s value as a totem of the right, there is little evidence that she is an effective Home Secretary or will ever amount to one; Priti Patel’s tenure ought to have shown even the right-most Tory MPs that there is a gulf between being on-message on border control and actually getting something done about Channel crossings or the Rwanda relocation policy.
As for Williamson, he has his defenders, and perhaps he really is sufficiently skilled at backroom dark arts to justify Sunak putting him in the Cabinet Office to do it. But he also has a reputation for being somewhat “robust”, and while the Morton texts may not be enough to sink him on their own, they have proved an opportunity for the airing of other past incidents of indiscretion. The Guardian has unearthed some old bullying allegations from when Williamson was defence secretary from an unnamed civil servant. We don’t know what else is out there, and every time something like this about Williamson surfaces it proves newly embarrassing for the prime minister who appointed him.
Even before any of this became public knowledge I imagine our ConservativeHome panel spoke for the majority when they handed him what must be our lowest opening score for a new minister of minus 29.
This rating is doubtless informed by memories of Williamson’s less-than-compelling cabinet career. First, sacked as defence secretary for allegedly leaking from the National Security Council; second, sacked as education secretary after overseeing a total fiasco over A-level results during the pandemic.
All this presents a problem for Sunak. Perhaps Downing Street fears that if it loses two cabinet members so early both the press and MPs will scent blood, but that the Prime Minister has had to spend his opening weeks defending such people, rather than say, an able and energetic minister pushing through something worthwhile, says nothing good about where the government currently is.
Sunak can only shoulder so much of the blame for that. He is stuck trying to unite the Conservative Party from a position of weakness, which is impossible. Tory MPs respect strength and need a sense of purpose, and when provided it usually prove quite relaxed about the precise ideological direction in which they’re pulling. (As ever, the best example of this is Johnson. Nearly all of those who agonised about what they’d do if he became leader ended up serving under him contentedly enough; lots of those who enthused about his pivot to the Red Wall had shown scant patience for Theresa May’s efforts at a similar leftward tack.)
Despite inheriting a large majority, Sunak won’t be able to provide the sense of mission that might actually cohere it into something he can wield. He won the leadership more or less by default, felt forced to retain many of Truss’s key appointments, and is already pleading the exigency of appeasing the markets to dump his campaign promises from the summer leadership contest.
Even in good times there was scarcely a “Sunakism” for people to get their heads around. Now there will be room for little but an austerity programme completely decoupled from any structural reforms to the economy or the state (meaning the sort where everything just gets more expensive and worse). If the government wants to have any chance of winning the next election, it will need to spend what promise to be quite a difficult two years being very careful about the fights it picks – not getting sucked into defensive actions over the likes of Williamson.
[See also: Imminent migrant deal leaves Rishi Sunak exposed]