Rishi Sunak is in trouble…

Image by Anthea Bareham

In fairness, it’s not an exceptionally observant point to make: anywhere you look, pundits are noting the unshakeable air of malaise around Westminster. It’s nothing compared to the death spiral of Johnson’s regime, or the barely-controlled hysteria of Truss’s brief reign of economic terror, but it’s there. The waters may be calm, but there are clouds on the horizon, and beneath the waters a certain blonde, bottle-brush haired Kraken stirs…

That monster is, of course, the disgraced former prime minister Boris Johnson. The man who appointed such spectacular minds as Shailesh Vara (backbencher for seventeen years, Northern Ireland Secretary for all of sixty-one days) now endeavours to posture as an expert on Northern Ireland ahead of Sunak’s long-awaited deal. The Kraken of course hath no heart, and there’s no debate as to whether Johnson holds the capacity to care about anything other than himself (the short answer is ‘no’), let alone the dizzying intricacies of Northern Irish politics. His motive is to use the issue as a springboard to bounce back, Tigger-like, into the heart of British politics, enchanting the hearts and minds (and votes) of the ERG to defenestrate Sunak and reclaim what he regards as his rightful office.

That MPs fear Sunak’s end barely 100 days into office is astounding, and speaks to the absolutely dire straits the Conservative Party is in. Certainly, the quality of the party should be blamed more than the quality of Sunak’s leadership. Although he faces criticism for a lack of the common touch and a demeanour similar to a teacher reading stories to small kids, allies and critics agree that he is a serious man for serious times, committed to taking tough decisions and applying a coat of respectability to the mud-and-blood-spattered, dented façade of the Conservative Party. It’s what he was brought in to do, and there are many in the party who would earnestly claim he has done a good job of it.

And yet, quietly, persistently, the shadows grow. His hotly-anticipated reshuffle left civil servants in tears, so claimed the Sunday Times, and backbench MPs with concerns that Sunak is a man far too concerned with the long-term and not the immediate crises at hand; building a new Department of Science from scratch does not scream “vote-winner”. The Conservatives remain twenty points behind in the polls — there was no new-leader bounce as under Major, despite party chairman Greg Hands’ favoured comparison with 1992. Instead, as everyone’s favourite deputy chairman ‘30p-Lee’ Anderson complained, the Government comes across as the band on the Titanic, serenading an unstoppable descent into electoral annihilation come 2024. And Sunak, once a student of the piano, takes the lead role. Backbench desperation is mounting, and with it the appetite for radical action. Combine this with a damaging, potentially months-long brawl with the ERG over Northern Ireland, a wipe-out at the Local Elections – and the prospect of a sixth prime minister in seven years, once unthinkable, becomes harder and harder to just disregard outright.

If the heavens fall and Sunak becomes the latest PM toppled by his own party, it is inevitable that Johnson will run. The last time round, observers were treated to the spectacle of the would-be Terminator scrabbling for the votes needed to reach 100 backers, like a chain-smoker searching for cigarettes down the back of the sofa. Almost certainly, he has not learnt his lesson, and anyway the allure of power is far too great. Yet who on earth would oppose him? The browbeaten, long-suffering centre-ground of the party would not go quietly, eliminating the chance of a simple coronation. Such has been the severity of the circular firing squad of the last seven years, however, that there are very few, if any, credible candidates for leader left standing. Penny Mordaunt, in her fourth attempt in as many years? Jeremy Hunt, who already lost to Johnson once and crashed out of the 2022 contest in dead-last? Perhaps Grant Shapps/Michael Green/et al? One is even tempted to imagine Michael Gove stepping up to screw Boris over one final, glorious time.

The long and short of it is that there just are no serious candidates. The names that are mentioned in passing as possible Leaders of the Opposition post-2024-wipeout, from the anti-woke crusader Kemi Badenoch to the go-getter former aide to Sunak, Claire Coutinho, would either never dream of standing up to Johnson or are ridiculously lightweight. Should Sunak fall, Johnson will run, and Johnson will win.

Yet the taste of victory would rapidly sour, because of course it would: Boris is Boris. Though an increasing number of Tories look back on Johnson’s tenure through rose-tinted glasses, many others regard his return with outright horror. In the hectic hours after Truss’s resignation, when the blonde bombshell’s return seemed all but certain, some dozen backbench rebels were said to seriously be considering resigning their seats in protest, triggering damaging by-elections. Since then, some prominent opponents like William Wragg and Sajid Javid have ruled out standing in the next election. Others, like Damian Green, have been deselected by their own constituencies. Plausibly these rebels-without-a-future would be far more predisposed to the nuclear option of resigning their seats now than they were four months ago, potentially triggering dozens of the type of hotly contested by-elections that helped bring Boris down the first time. And beyond that, there is of course the Partygate inquiry (yes, that Partygate inquiry), still diligently working away and brandishing the very real threat of a suspension from the Commons for the would-be-returning former PM. No sooner would Johnson be able to refit his gold wallpaper, than he might be turfed out all over again. Faced with the prospect of a seventh Conservative prime minister, one could imagine the King doing away with the whole affair and simply dissolving Parliament.

Speaking of Charles, perhaps the new sovereign represents a way out for Sunak. All signs seem to point to this year’s local elections being an abject disaster for the Conservative Party; they could end up as the coup de grace to Sunak’s flagging administration. Any backbench rebellion would have to be very quickly muffled, however, in deference to the King’s coronation just two days later (also, Eurovision, though Conservatives probably value one of those events more than the other). This would be a welcome and valuable respite for Sunak to regroup, strategise, and come out fighting to head off any coup attempt. You might even think that three days of festivities emphasising order, progress, and the national interest might prompt Tory MPs to act for the good of the people, for once, instead of themselves.

Or perhaps not. Maybe we’d just end up with the sight of a fatally-wounded Prime Minister heralding the ascension of a new monarch even as his own imminent political exit beckons, doomed to become simply another footnote in the dying days of Tory Britain, the answer to a pub-quiz tie-breaker:

“Which two shortest-serving Prime Ministers presided over the death of the Queen and the coronation of the King respectively…”