Rishi Sunak believes he can still turn around the Conservative Party’s fortunes, but some ministers have already ‘checked out’
- Some of Rishi Sunak’s ministers including Michael Gove ‘checked out’, one said
- Polling suggests Tories losing ‘Terry and June’ voters in their forties and fifties
Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet away day in the Elizabethan splendour of Chequers was meant to be the latest step in the new Prime Minister’s drive to show the country that the grown-ups are back in charge.
Detailed presentations were organised on each of his five pledges and ministers were sworn to secrecy in a bid to prevent private disputes spilling out into the public gaze as they had when Theresa May gathered her own ministers at the Buckinghamshire retreat.
The mood was meant to be ‘business-like’. Yet the noises outside were hard to ignore. Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi had failed to take the hint that he is no longer wanted and turned up despite having his presentation cancelled. ‘No one wanted to catch his eye,’ said one of those present.
And disastrous new polling suggested that the Tories were losing the ‘Terry and June’ voters in their forties and fifties, who have been the bedrock of recent Conservative election wins.
Rishi Sunak’s (pictured) Cabinet away day in the Elizabethan splendour of Chequers was meant to be the latest step in the new Prime Minister’s drive to show the country that the grown-ups are back in charge
The cabinet travelled to the Prime Minister’s estate in Chequers today amid the growing row
Forty miles away, Boris Johnson was reminding voters – and Tory MPs – that he is still here, posing for pictures with former cabinet ally Nadine Dorries ahead of a major TV interview next week on her new Talk TV show.
Inside the Chequers drawing room, the news was scarcely more encouraging. Elections guru Isaac Levido did not ‘sugarcoat’ the dire opinion polls. There was, he said, only a ‘steep and narrow path to election victory’.
Even this would require not just a laser-like focus on delivering the public’s priorities, but also an iron party discipline of the kind Conservative MPs have been unable to muster for some years now.
What is more, he said, any turnaround in the polls is likely to take many months to emerge. Local elections in May will be difficult. The Conservatives may still be trailing Labour by a wide margin come party conference time in October, making it harder than ever to persuade jittery Tory MPs to knuckle under.
Labour’s commanding poll lead is ‘soft’ and enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer is far from baked in. But the Tories cannot afford more infighting.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson waits on the sidelines as allies try to calculate if and when he will get the opportunity to return. Or rather, he doesn’t wait on the sidelines at all.
Mr Sunak’s team proudly boast they are attempting to run a ‘no news’ government, in a bid to calm things down after last year’s political turbulence.
But Mr Johnson is only too happy to fill the news vacuum. This week, his trip to Ukraine and passionate call to arms in the Daily Mail appeared to have a galvanising effect on Western leaders, who finally agreed to send vital tanks to Kyiv just days later.
Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi (pictured) is facing increasing pressure to go following revelations over his tax affairs
A new poll by People Polling today gives Labour a 29-point lead with voters, up five points in a week.
The former prime minister is nominally loyal to Mr Sunak. He has not uttered a word of criticism in public since being forced from office last summer – and his decision to back a Tory rebellion over wind farms only served to hasten a government U-turn that was already looking inevitable.
But his allies and supporters have not gone away. ‘If the local elections are bad and the polls stay bad, then Rishi could find himself looking very vulnerable very quickly,’ said one MP sympathetic to the former PM. ‘People will start to panic and look for a proven winner.’
But others disagree. One former minister pointed to the growing list of Tory MPs already declaring they will call it a day at the next election, including ex-Cabinet heavyweights like Sajid Javid and talented rising stars such as Dehenna Davison and Chloe Smith. ‘Nobody really believes the return of Boris is a viable option. People sitting on majorities of 3,000 in the Red Wall are not sitting around thinking, maybe Boris can save my seat. They are massively depressed – they know the game’s up and they are brushing up their CVs.’
Allies of Liz Truss also warn that she is ready to rock the boat on both tax and Brexit if Mr Sunak strays too far to the political centre ground.
Jeremy Hunt yesterday did his best to calm the growing clamour for tax cuts, with a promise of jam tomorrow.
For now, the PM has to focus on what he can control. But even here, alarm bells are ringing. The handling of Mr Zahawi’s case, in particular, is causing growing disquiet among Tory MPs, who fear it points to a hesitant streak in Mr Sunak which could prove fatal.
During a TV clip recorded at the Chequers summit, the PM was not asked a single question about his five pledges – but did face a barrage of enquiries about why he is holding on to a minister who has admitted being fined by the taxman while serving as Chancellor. ‘It is baffling,’ said one minister. ‘I understand that Rishi wants to be seen to be doing things by the book, but every day Zahawi stays in post, it is doing us damage. He is obviously going to have to go, so why delay?’
Boris Johnson (right) was reminding voters – and Tory MPs – that he is still here, posing for pictures with former cabinet ally Nadine Dorries (left) ahead of a major TV interview next week on her new Talk TV show
Sir Keir Starmer joked he and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner were going for a ‘singalong’ with Sir Rod Stewart after their visit to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex
Senior Tories believe Mr Sunak has only six to nine months to make an impact before the countdown to the next election becomes deafening. After that point, opponents – whether in the Civil Service or the House of Lords – will know that they can block anything by simply dragging their feet.
Some ministers report that parts of the Civil Service are already ‘looking ahead to Labour’ and stalling for time on controversial proposals. Yet there is still no sign of the promised legislation to stop the small boats crisis. And below the surface, there is simmering anger over the ‘botched’ distribution of £2billion in levelling up grants last week.
Many Tory MPs are enraged to find that, after being encouraged to campaign for local projects, they are now being told they never had a chance because their areas had received grants in a previous round. ‘People have been made to look like chumps and they are apoplectic about it,’ said one minister.
‘The thing that is worrying people is that this government is supposed to be delivering a return to competence. Part of the problem is that some of the ministers involved look like they’ve given up and checked out. Michael Gove is one of them, but he’s not the only one. Rishi needs to deal with them.’
Sometimes leaders and governments feel like they cannot get a break. In a bizarre twist on Thursday, Sir Rod Stewart rang in to Sky News to say it was time to ‘change the bloody government’.
The ageing rocker, a long-time Tory supporter, said he was incensed by the state of the NHS and the Government’s refusal to give nurses an inflation-level pay rise. One Tory MP noted that Sir Rod had left the UK in 1975 to escape Labour’s 83 per cent top rate of tax, only returning from LA in 2014. ‘It’s a bit rich for Rod Stewart to be lecturing us about public spending,’ he said.
But a senior Tory source insisted that the controversy surrounding Mr Zahawi had failed to knock the Chequers summit off course. ‘It was a really good meeting,’ the source said. ‘After dinner, everyone left with a real sense of purpose and unity, which is what we are going to need to turn things around.
‘The situation with Nadhim is tough. But the Prime Minister genuinely believes it is better to take the right decision rather than the convenient one, even if it takes a little longer. The review will come back and if it requires a tough decision then it will be taken.’
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