When the history of this Conservative government is written, the year of 2023 will occupy a central place. But not for the reasons Rishi Sunak hoped.
As 2023 began, this next chapter in British history appeared to write itself as scribes readied to explain how, after a year of political trauma and tailspin, a new prime minister returned to revive an ailing party. His goal: win an election in 2024; his method: doughty, dogged professionalism.
Indeed, when Rishi Sunak was gushed into Downing Street in the psychodramatic dregs of 2022, he could not have been plainer: “Some mistakes were made”, he remarked in reference to at least one failed forebear, “I have been elected as leader of my party, and your prime minister, in part, to fix them”. Fortunately for the new PM, the day before he entered No 10, only 29 per cent of voters said they expected him to be “poor” or “terrible” at the job. After Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the public were willing Sunak to succeed.
And sure, through 2023, budgets have been and gone with no self-inflicted market meltdown; elsewhere, the PM has overseen much-improved relations with Brussels. But as Sunak’s premiership developed, it quickly became apparent that his immediate success in calming a financier class quivered by Trussonomics was the easy bit.
Pivoting to the public in January, armed with five fresh “pledges”, Sunak intended to make the case for his Conservative Party. But from here has flowed recurrent relaunches, a series of intra-party dramas and, lo, how our prime minister’s ratings have tumbled.
The big picture story of 2023 can be surmised with two related assessments: the first, evinced by recent polling, is Rishi Sunak’s failure to shift the dial for the Conservative Party, and the second is the success of the Conservative Party in shifting the dial for Rishi Sunak.
But it is not just the public that has seemingly rejected Rishi Sunak. His MPs are increasingly unruly, with factions swirled amid the PM’s recent Rwanda plan tumult. The Tory grassroots, as measured by ConservativeHome’s monthly poll of members, are no more convinced. They view the prime minister with a net satisfaction rating of -25.4 — in January, it was a positive 2.9.
So why has 2023 proved so dire for the prime minister? Why have recurrent relaunches — with No 10 unveiling a series of “real Rishis” — failed to shift the dial? We begin with those infamous New Year bullet points.
Rishi Sunak 1.0: The pledges
Pledge by pledge, 2023 kicked off with Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer swearing their respective oaths at the altar of pragmatism. Trust them and the economy would grow, NHS waiting lists would shorten and the “small boats” would stop.
It was the prime minister’s emphasis on the latter that drove the greatest wedge between our technocrats-in-chief — and his boat-stopping zeal has proved politically crippling in the long term. Otherwise, observers heralded the return of politics by agreed dullness: near total convergence on matters managerial.
The “five pledges” were at once an audacious and deeply pragmatic statement of intent: Sunak would win the tug-of-war between agency and contingency, boring the public with a record of delivery so undeniable that Britain would collectively soften into a state of political pliability. Swelled with New Year goodwill and denying his colleagues’ nihilistic determinism, it was on these terms — founded on his fiscal virtù — that Sunak would win back voters to the Conservatives.
The spring budget in March was a case in point. The package’s conscious steadiness bore the mark of a government working at pace to exorcise any excitement from British politics.
Still, significant questions remained after Sunak’s New Year speech: could his pledge-making cut through as the memory of Conservative administrations past lingered? Moreover, some of the pledges were made without deadlines — and Sunak remains coy when asked when he will finally make good on his stop the boats vow.
Nor did the pledge gambit solve one of Sunak’s most significant political problems: the issue of Conservative apathy and disillusion.
What is for certain, no commentator — as was common practice in January — can reasonably rubbish the pledges as “unambitious”. The prime minister is on track to miss four out of five of his “priorities” at year’s end: the economy is limp, debt is rising, NHS waiting lists are longer and he has not stopped the boats. As we enter 2024, that doesn’t look set to change.
In January, therefore, the PM moved quickly to signal a definite break with the past; it was intended to be a uniquely Sunakian stall, matching delivery on the ground with an ascendant rhetoric of renewal.
But Sunak’s attempt to signal a bold new departure, especially in 2023’s early stages, was immediately impaired by his dire inheritance.
The ink was barely dry on Sunak’s new pledges before his then-party chair Nadhim Zahawi became the latest in a long line of Conservative parliamentarians to succumb to allegations of “sleaze”. In the end, a report from the government’s independent ethics adviser concluded that Zahawi had “shown insufficient regard for the General Principles of the Ministerial Code” over his tax affairs.
The drip-drip of the Zahawi scandal, whereby reported wrongdoing was denied, then defended, before being deemed worthy of the sack, cast minds back to the ailing months of Boris Johnson’s administration.
Upon entering No 10, Sunak had shown steeliness by promising “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, but the relentless focus on inquiries, probes and investigations first on Nadhim Zahawi, and later regarding Dominic Raab‘s conduct, saw him castigated as “weak” by Keir Starmer.
As far as the Labour leader was concerned, the of subtext the criticism was that, while he had shown strength in standing up to the perceived misgivings of his ancien régime (Corbyn and his -ism, that is), the PM was still in hock to the Johnsonian sleaze machine.
But Sunak’s intra-party travails were not merely limited to “sleaze” and probity problems. In fact, the posturing of Liz Truss — unabated in her ideological intent following the mini-budget furore — has been a core theme of 2023.
Whether it has been in the United States, within the deregulatory rebel Conservative Growth Group alliance, at Conservative Party Conference or before an audience at the Institute for Government, Truss has consistently attempted to pressure her predecessor with her tax-cutting zeal.
Indeed, in the first few months of 2023, Sunak’s immediate predecessors seemed locked in competition as to who could present as the most prominent pretender to the party crown. And whether it has been over their doomed political missions or “partygate” drama, Sunak still refuses to rebuke his predecessors directly — lest he invoke the ire of their respective acolytes.
Rishi Sunak’s first reshuffle
With Zahawi jettisoned, Sunak used the gap in his government as an excuse to undertake a broader Whitehall rejig. After the dust settled on the Rishuffle of 8 February, the appointment of former (and current) trade minister Greg Hands as the new Conservative Party chairman was probably the least interesting aspect. Far more consequential was the fate of BEIS, with the department departed and apportioned among Grant Shapps, Michelle Donelan and Kemi Badenoch.
Still, it was a roundly inoffensive reshuffle. Apart from the obvious candidate in Zahawi, there were no real casualties, no individual irked by a demotion. With the vaulting of Lee Anderson as party deputy chair, factions were flattered and antagonists appeased.
As far as the politics was concerned, the lack of new blood within cabinet risked creating the image of a tired, fatigued party. It is a criticism Sunak has consciously sought to respond to in more recent reshuffles.
By this point, with Rishi Sunak having been prime minister for a full six months, the “five priorities” had entirely consumed politics. It was government by permanent campaigning — and the prime minister, to his credit, was relentlessly on message.
Then, not before their time, flowed a steady stream of political victories — beginning with Sunak’s decision to invoke Section 35 of the Scotland Act and block Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. It won plaudits within his own party and may have even hastened Nicola Sturgeon’s political decline. (She resigned on 28 March). Crucially, it showed that in the right context, the PM was willing to be ruthless.
In the latter stages of February, amid the grand setting of the Windsor Guildhall’s portrait room flanked by his EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Sunak informed the assembled press that the relevant parties had negotiated a new “Framework”. After months of feverish speculation and posturing on all sides, Sunak was unveiling his Northern Ireland Protocol fix.
By breaking the protracted protocol impasse, the prime minister was presented with the opportunity to stare down his rebels. In the end, there was no sweeping rebellion of like those of Brexit yore. Rather, the vote on the “Stormont brake” statutory instrument — passed with only 29 Tory naysayers — highlighted Sunak’s strength within the parliamentary party. His gamble in bringing Eurosceptics like Steve Baker, Chris Heaton-Harris and Suella Braverman into the cabinet had paid off.
Equally, that both Liz Truss and Boris Johnson had tried and failed to stoke an anti-Sunak ferment underlined their relative weakness. Johnson, of course, had gushed to the “No” lobby from his appearance before the privileges committee over “partygate”. The symbolism, as party and parliament together showed signs of moving on from the drama of the Johnson years, was manifest.
For many, the Windsor Framework vote provided a suitable summation of Sunak’s first six months as prime minister: he had succeeded in restoring relative calm after the collapse of the Johnsonian and Trussite regimes. He was fulfilling, it seemed, his role in the grand story of Conservative governance as a crucial stabilising force.
But the boats
The Windsor Framework succeeded in securing Sunak’s position in his party; Johnson and Truss were quieted and, after months of psychodrama, unsettled MPs were reminded of what policy delivery looked like. With political capital to spare for perhaps the first time in his premiership, Sunak turned to the fifth, and most politically sensitive, of his “five pledges” for government: cue a plan to “stop the boats” once and for all.
Thus, in March — having traded for nearly a year on the soon-to-be-ripe fruits of the Rwanda deportations policy — a new “small boats”-stopping strategy was inaugurated by way of the Illegal Migration Bill. At a press conference, Sunak declared he was “up for the fight” over the proposed legislation — both in parliament and the judiciary.
At the time, critics suggested the machismo was misplaced and the expectation-creation — considering the full operation of the bill relied on the still-unimplemented Rwanda deportation scheme — as electorally costly.
With the PM confronted with his backbenchers (and home secretary) over amendments during the bill’s committee stage, his “stop the boats” pledge was already emerging as a glaring vulnerability in his pitch as a problem solver. The Conservative Party, even now, stood ready to cry betrayal if success was not forthcoming.
Still, the Illegal Migration Act made its way through parliament largely in tact — despite a scathing intervention from the Archbishop of Canterbury during its Lords stages.
The decline and fall of Sunak 1.0
Viewed in full, this period might be characterised as “peak Sunak” — a honeymoon-like phase characterised by success on areas squandered by his predecessors — before events, elections and continued economic gloom hollowed out his revival narrative.
Indeed, the Illegal Migration Bill was still going through parliamentary ping-pong when the local elections in May saw the Conservatives lose 1,063 councillors — a worse outcome than their own deliberately nihilistic expectation management had predicted.
These dire local election results set the scene for a panoply of Conservative right conferences, held by the Conservative Democratic Organisation and the US-based National Conservatives. How quickly the momentum had switched. The energy, now, seemed with Sunak’s critics.
This Conservative right ferment culminated in July with the formation of the “New Conservatives”, a new factional grouping, co-chaired by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger. In its first report, the clique called on Sunak to cut net migration from 606,000 in 2022 (later revised up to a record 745,000) to below 226,000 in 2024.
The founding of the New Conservatives was also the natural consequence of consistent criticism from within the party ranks that Sunak was being too managerial, too nice and not aggressive enough in his politics. Soon such siren calls would become impossible to ignore for the prime minister — especially, as his “pledge strategy” began to falter under the weight of its ambition.
By July, it was clear that the prime minister had yet to make progress on any of his key priorities. Debt was recorded as standing at 100.1 per cent of GDP; Britain was teetering on the brink of technical recession; price rises were defying forecasts; NHS waiting lists were still bearish; and the small boats had not “stopped”.
No longer could Sunak appeal to his pledges to wriggle out of an uncomfortable line of questioning — now, the uncomfortable questions dissected his commitments. The core tenets of Sunakism, defined deliberately on strict managerial lines, were in the process of being upended.
It had been speculated that Sunak’s plan in January was to meet his five pledges this year, and then run for election next year promising to satisfy five more. But with YouGov polling finding in June that over 90 per cent of people considered the PM to be failing on four of his five pledges (0.2 per cent growth saving Sunak’s blushes in the single instance), there were already rumours Sunak could undertake a broader strategic reset.
Rishi Sunak 2.0
As the House of Commons rose for summer recess on 20 July, voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome headed to the polls for a triplet of by-elections.
In the story of Sunakian rule, the result in Uxbridge might reasonably be viewed as a watershed moment. The Conservative party narrowly won the seat by 495 votes, following a campaign that capitalised on opposition to plans by London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to extend the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).
On this axis of Uxbridge, therefore — with routings in Somerton and Selby sidelined — in swung a whole new mode of governance, with ULEZ-like wedges weaponised. Sunak, far from a zealous convert to the “green agenda” in any case, quickly opted to water down net zero-chasing policies. The underlying message was that, while Labour takes an ideological view of climate change, the government was refusing to privilege politics over practicality during a cost of living crisis.
With the “Uxbridge strategy” taking shape, the summer recess was subsequently “gridded” up and apportioned to areas where Sunak felt he could strike fear into Starmerite hearts. The public bore witness consecutively to “energy week”, “small boats week” and “health week” as Sunak, with little nuance but imperious intent, sought to coarsen political debate by laying “traps” for Labour.
But soon, there were signs that the cycle of new dividing line, turn new policy, turn media blitz, turn political punishment for Keir Starmer was having rather more dire consequences for the prime minister’s own operation.
“Small boats week”, stretching from 7 August to 13 August, is a case in point.
In this week, as the government touted its crackdown on “lefty lawyers” and a new agreement with Turkey, the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge sat steadfast in Dorset, deliberately conspicuous — as a profound signal of the government’s small boats-stopping- intent.
The message, mirroring the new net zero strategy, was clear: Labour fails to back the barge, fails to talk tough on illegal migration and simply does not have a plan. With controversy successfully stoked, Lee Anderson argued that those persons unhappy with their stay on the Bibby Stockholm should “f*** off back to France”.
Then, on day four of “small boats week”, it was announced that the number of arrivals across the Channel hit 100,000 since 2018. The outspoken deputy Conservative chairman responded by saying Channel crossings were “out of control”, as ministers adopted defensive positions.
Next, on day five, asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm had to be moved off the barge following the discovery of Legionella.
In the end, it was roundly acknowledged that the PM had lost rather more than he had gained during his long summer. So, with Rishi Sunak’s closest advisers and election aides collecting for a strategy “awayday” in the aftermath — as plans were readied for party conference, SW1 collectively sighed: what would come next?
Rishi Sunak 2.0, cont.
Conservative Party conference, held between 1st to 4th October, was styled as the chrysalis chamber from which the prime minister would emerge reenergised and election-ready.
In Manchester, as Conservative factions competed for media attention and rumours of a HS2 u-turn festered, Sunak resolved to steal the show with a carefully choreographed peroration on “change”.
The centre of Sunak’s audacious conference argument was that he, in his first year as prime minister, had located a “30-year political status quo” ripe for renewal. “Politics doesn’t work the way it should”, he explained to the Conservative Party faithful: “We’ve had thirty years of a political system that incentivises the easy decision, not the right one”.
Having watered down net zero targets the previous month, HS2, as expected, became the latest policy area to feel the force of the prime minister’s “long-termism”.
But the political contortions underpinning Sunak’s “change” pitch begged a series of difficult questions. It was noted that Sunak would probably be able to pass legislation on smoking and A-level reform long before any general election campaign began. So how long can the PM maintain this image as a “change candidate” through 2024?
Nor was Sunak’s vision of “change” derived from some grand new philosophy of state action (Keir Starmer thinks he has these with his “missions”). The prime minister had, seemingly, plucked some policy areas out of the air and declared his ambition to act on them — was this Sunaksignalling how government will be conducted until an election is called?
The decline and fall of Rishi Sunak 2.0
But these questions would remain answerless; for Sunak’s strategies only last as long as some obscure electorate somewhere deems it.
Of course, it is customary to begin with caveats when it comes to analysing what by-elections mean for an incumbent government. But, as we learnt in the aftermath of the Uxbridge poll, one individual who enjoys extrapolating by-elections into a picture of the national mood is the prime minister himself. What, then, did polls in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire indicate?
In Tamworth, the Conservatives had a majority of 19,634 overturned; in Mid Bedfordshire, where the party had hoped to benefit from a three-way race, it saw a majority of 24,664 tumble. The brave faces and glib spin from Conservative Party apparatchiks on the morning following the results seemed some distance detached from the seriousness of the situation.
In the wake of a by-election routing, the newly dispossessed party leader is typically asked whether they will double down on their agreed strategy or set course for some new departure. But Sunak, who found himself in an awkward mid-reinvention phase — post-party conference but pre-King’s Speech — was, in the immediate aftermath, stuck.
The curse of Suella Braverman
And it soon transpired that not even the regal opulence of a Speech from the Throne — the first delivered by a male monarch for more than 70 years — could stem the PM’s political travails.
The event, like Conservative Party conference, was subject to wall-to-wall coverage in the media. It is the epitome of incumbency advantage in British politics. But for Rishi Sunak, such set-pieces have served merely to highlight his political woes.
Ahead of the King’s Speech, home secretary Suella Braverman had sent a tweet appearing to confirm a Financial Times scoop that a measure to curb charities handing out tents to rough sleepers was being cooked up in the Home Office. The home secretary’s thread suggested that using tents is a “lifestyle choice” for some rough sleepers, many of whom come “from abroad”.
Braverman, used to freelancing following speeches at the National Conservative conference in May and in Washington in September, had once more stolen the spotlight from her boss.
Rishi Sunak and the Rwanda plan
Braverman’s homelessness comments, and a further Times article in November lumping criticism on pro-Palestine protests, would set the scene for the most significant week of Sunak’s premiership.
For the week beginning 13th of November featured a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle, with Suella Braverman ditched and David Cameron vaulted, and a reckoning for — followed by a restatement of intent on — the government’s flagship Rwanda deportation plan.
By appointing Lord Cameron as foreign secretary, Sunak appeared to be doing a few things: (1) he was ending his ephemeral association with his 30-year consensus/“change” strategy; and, (2), at last, gambling on an ideological programme — vaulting an old liberal Tory bastion alongside some of his political disciples at the expense of the Conservative right. The mystery about what motivates Sunak seemed no longer moot: the “real Rishi”, it turned out, was in fact “Cameron 2.0”. The days of the PM pandering to populists, with no obvious electoral benefit, was over.
The populists, unsurprisingly, were not happy. The New Conservatives accused Sunak of “walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power with a large majority in 2019”. Suella Braverman, in her post-sacking broadside, then stepped ahead of the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the Rwanda scheme to accuse Sunak of having no “Plan B”.
Braverman’s comments meant that by the time Lord Reed read the court’s Rwanda ruling, Conservative right bastions were already limbering up for a factional throw-down.
Rishi Sunak’s reaction to the court ruling was twofold. First, new home secretary James Cleverly was sent to Rwanda to pen a new revised treaty with the African nation. Second, Cleverly unveiled new emergency legislation to the commons in a ministerial statement, explaining it would decree to the courts that Rwanda is “safe” for all relevant purposes.
But it was not lost on many that while Cleverly delivered his commons statement, immigration minister Robert Jenrick was nowhere to seen. He would make his presence known in a post-resignation missive, which labelled the new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill “a triumph of hope over experience”.
In days, Jenrick and Braverman lined up alongside the newly conjoined “five families” — a constellation of the dispossessed, the never-possessed and the otherwise perennially discontented in the party — to abstain over the bill.
Still, two star chambers, innumerable pool clips and 29 abstentions later, Sunak’s Rwanda bill successfully passed its commons second reading. It sets up a heated showdown in the New Year, with the “five families” set to spend the festive period penning their hostile amendments.
The rejections(s) of Rishi Sunak(s)
Rishi Sunak’s 2023 has been defined by his failure to shift the dial of British politics — despite, or in part because of, his myriad strategies and political modes.
But contextualising Sunak’s political problems poses a classic analytical dilemma: how do we account for the PM’s agency to make bad decisions against a structural backdrop defined by a dire inheritance and insatiable factions, composed of individuals who have long-dismissed him as an antagonist?
It is a question that can be more neatly surmised like this: has Rishi Sunak been an unlucky prime minister?
Indeed, as far as the PM’s misfortune goes, it seems that for every competently managed reshuffle, there is a Supreme Court Rwanda ruling. For every autumn statement, a new round of record migration statistics.
Still, Sunak has undertaken to weave the warp of fortune’s caprice at every turn: first with his pledges and then with his net zero tilt — later informing a quickly reneged on “change” strategy. But the tug-of-war between agency and contingency, a sympathetic reading might suggest, has stretched Sunak thin — leaving him unable to make a mark either on his party or the polls.
However you frame Sunak’s year, the result seems clear: the public has refused to embrace each and every version of the PM No 10 aides have concocted. The Tory membership, as ConservativeHome’s surveying suggests, is no more contented. And, crucially, the loudest quarter of the Conservative Party seems increasingly insatiable — as it peers over the horizon and to a post-Sunak future.
All the while, Keir Starmer has become more effective in his attempts to stoke Conservative infighting — and the Labour electoral machine is kicking into gear. With more by-elections and commons showdowns on the horizon in 2024, Sunak finally shifting the dial for the Conservative Party has never seemed less likely.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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