Tory civil war: Rishi Sunak struggles to manage fresh turmoil in his party

PM faces more headaches over Boris Johnson’s unrepentant allies and rejected Rwanda plan

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 29 June 2023 21:40 BST
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Suella Braverman says she ‘respectfully disagrees’ with Rwanda ruling

Rishi Sunak promised to bring stability and unity to the Conservatives when he took charge at No 10. But the prime minister is struggling to manage his unruly and divided party, having been hit by fresh Tory turmoil in another bruising day.

Boris Johnson’s most loyal allies, including Nadine Dorries and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, are causing yet more trouble for Mr Sunak – and could even face suspension from parliament for their roles in a “disturbing” campaign to undermine the privileges committee.

Seven MPs and three Tory peers – including serving minister Zac Goldsmith – were named and shamed in the latest scathing report which suggested the Commons may wish to consider whether they were in contempt of parliament.

Were the censured Tories duly chastened? No. Not a bit of it. They lashed out again at the seven-member panel they are fond of describing as a “kangaroo court” – accusing the cross-party group of “gross overreach” and destroying free speech.

“They need to grow up and put on their big girl and boy pants and stop crying about hurty words,” Ms Dorries scoffed on a TalkTV interview.

Having tried to keep Boris-supporting Tory members onside by dodging the vote to censure the former PM earlier this month, Mr Sunak faces further awkward moments ahead.

The PM is under pressure to sack or at least condemn his Foreign Office minister Lord Goldsmith for joining in with attempts to discredit the work of the committee.

And if Labour and the Liberal Democrats push for the Johnson supporters to be punished, it leaves the Tory leader in the difficult position of either backing people who despise him or being seen to hang a rump of his own MPs out to dry.

Mr Sunak also faces Tory divisions on small boats, after the Rwanda policy was ripped apart by High Court judges who decided it was not a safe enough place to send Britain’s asylum seekers.

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman under pressure to ‘stop the boats’

While some right-wing Tories are now pushing for the PM to take the radical step of pulling us out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in the hope it makes deportations easier, moderates are horrified at the prospect of making Britain an international pariah.

Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke – a Liz Truss ally knighthood by Mr Johnson – said on Thursday it could be time to “revisit the question of our [ECHR] membership” if the looming Supreme Court case goes against the government. But moderates such as ex-justice secretary Robert Buckland loathe the idea.

Mr Sunak says he is willing to do “whatever is necessary” to ensure the government gets its way. Would he be able to win the backing of his own MPs for a manifesto promising to defy the human rights convention and put the UK in the same company as Russia?

One gloomy senior Tory MP told The Independent the small boats policy now risks turning off wavering voters on two fronts, alienating those who don’t like the idea of defying courts and angering those who just want to see the flights take off.

Sunak is trying to rally the electorate to his five big pledges. But he is having a hard time convincing his own fractious troops they can be achieved by the next election. “We said we’d fix inflation and, six months on, it isn’t fixed,” said one MP worried about losing their seat in 2024.

Former No 10 adviser Tim Montgomerie warned on Thursday that even if “Jesus Christ returned to Earth” and became Tory leader the party was still “doomed” at the next election.

It sums up the mood of bleak pessimism in the party at the moment. The Tories did not mistake Mr Sunak for the messiah when he walked into No 10 eight months ago, but they hoped things would be beginning to get better by now. Patience is wearing thin.

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