Rishi Sunak was losing control of an increasingly lawless Tory party on Saturday as former cabinet ministers openly criticized the direction of policy under his leadership and dozens of second-tier MPs plotted a new rebellion over Brexit.
Amid recriminations over heavy Conservative losses in recent council elections, and with pro-Brexit MPs outraged that Sunak’s government is abandoning plans to destroy more than 4,000 EU laws within months, discipline was in danger of completely disintegrating on the right of the party.
Speaking at the pro-Boris Johnson Conservative Democratic Organization (CDO) inaugural conference in Bournemouth on Saturday, former Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested that the party high command under Sunak was responsible for the losses.
In a clear jab at those now in charge, he said some senior Westminster figures had “done a better job of damaging our party” over the past year than Labour. He also criticized MPs for ousting Johnson, saying they had overseen the “ouster of our most electorally successful prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.”
In comments reminiscent of the disastrous leadership of Liz Truss, he also backed a tax-cutting agenda, despite the perilous state of public finances and stubbornly high inflation. “The public will not vote Conservative because they want high taxes, high spending and high debt,” she said. “They vote Conservative because they expect us to keep taxes low.”
Nadine Dorries, a former culture secretary and one of Johnson’s biggest supporters, told the conference that the party had suffered an “astonishing political decline” since Johnson won an 80-vote majority in 2019 and was “going backwards.”
“We are adrift and people know it,” he said. “They can feel it and they can smell it. We no longer have that inspiring leader and visionary policies. What happened to leveling up? It’s been all but scrapped…a U-turn on the promised campfire of EU regulation, which in itself demonstrates a dearth of ambition.”
While he did not ask Johnson to replace Sunak, Dorries said: “The solution to most problems in politics is usually pretty simple: you need the right leader, you need the right vision, and you need to make people feel inspired… No I think we’re there right now.
Criticism of Sunak is increasingly focused on last week’s widely predicted setback over the withheld EU bill, a much-vaunted initiative that formed a centerpiece of Sunak’s campaign for Tory leadership last year. It was also the subject of a special campaign video of him, featuring shots of himself shredding laws.
On Monday, the bill will be the subject of further argument and controversy during its reporting stage in the Lords, with pro-EU Conservatives among those backing a series of amendments to limit the power of ministers to unilaterally remove any law.
But with the party increasingly splitting into rival camps over Brexit and EU issues, the Observer he has been told that large numbers of eurosceptic Tory MPs will be ready to riot when the bill returns to the House of Commons, unless ministers reverse their U-turn and indeed reinsert a firm date on the bill. that most EU laws will be scrapped.
Former minister David Jones, now vice-president of the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), said: “This is a very important issue for many Conservative MPs. At the time of the last general election, a promise was made that we would deliver the benefits of Brexit, which included removing a whole stretch of EU law. Now many of those same members are extremely concerned that this promise appears to have been abandoned.”
Meetings between whips and Conservative MPs continue to try to avoid a showdown in the House of Commons, which some fear could be reminiscent of the disputes that tore the party apart in the early 1990s over the Maastricht treaty. “If we don’t see progress, we will see the spectacle return to the House of Commons by Conservative MPs at war with their own government,” said a senior MP.
Another senior ERG figure said the rebellion would be much bigger than Sunak’s post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade deal, the Windsor framework, which 22 of his own MPs voted against, because removing the EU laws made sense to millions of voters as a demonstration of Brexit in action.
On Monday, as signs grow that some at the top of the party are vying for a seat ahead of what they believe will be a defeat in next year’s general election, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, will take center stage. from the stage at another gathering of the right, the “national conservatism” conference in London, where speakers will also include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and former miner and prominent MP Lee Anderson.
Leaving his increasingly mutinous party behind, Sunak, who went to watch his favorite soccer team Southampton lose to Fulham and be relegated from the Premier League on Saturday, will begin a week of international engagements. On Tuesday he will attend a Council of Europe meeting in Iceland and then travel to Tokyo ahead of the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne and former vice-chairman of the 1922 Parliamentarians Committee, said the party in its current state did not deserve as capable a leader as Sunak, and should support him. “After the conduct of the Conservative Party last year, Rishi Sunak is a much better leader than he deserves,” he said. Mocking critics on the right who preferred Johnson or Truss, he added: “The last thing the Conservative Party wants is a tribute act to chaos.”
Tory MP and defense select committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said the new burst of activity on the right looked like a deliberate attempt to skewer Sunak. “After finally seeing our government enter a welcome period of stability, reflected in national polls, it is difficult to interpret this sudden rise in right-wing activism as anything more than a deliberate attempt to mislead the prime minister,” he said.
“Many colleagues from all wings of the party are deeply shocked by not just one, but two splinter groups engaging in this act of self-harm.”
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer offers limited comfort to Sunak, showing that Labor’s lead over the Conservatives has dropped from 18 points two weeks ago to 14 points. Labor was down one at 43%, the Conservatives were up three at 29%, the Liberal Democrats were up one at 11% and the Greens were down two at 5%. Starmer remains preferred as prime minister, with 29% to Sunak’s 26%.